Not So Fantastic Plastic

Words by Kent Gration

In an industry that is increasingly driven by convenience, profits and austerity, mass-produced plastic furniture is fast becoming the norm as designers, businesses and manufacturers compete for market presence. In the four decades since Vico Magistretti first designed the monobloc chair from ABS resin in 1967, there has been a plethora of petrochemical incarnations that have proliferated the design landscape, in what can only be seen as a loss of artisan skills, craftsmanship and our personable relationship with natural materials.

Don't get me wrong, many polymers are quite versatile and have many valid uses, but how many designers, let alone consumers have stopped to think that there are more chairs in the world than people? In what way is it an environmental and social imperative that more chairs need to be designed and produced at an exponential rate, unless furniture is used as a medium to communicate that there are better, more environmentally preferred materials and processes to make chairs with, within a rational supply and demand ratio, that needn’t be a memorial to a designer long after they’re gone?

According to Clean Up Australia, in a recent study of illegal dumping hot-spots in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong, furniture accounted for 42% of illegally dumped rubbish. Whilst a United Nations Environmental Program report from 2006 estimated that there is an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating on or near the surface of every square mile of ocean. Air quality indoors has become worse than outdoors, according to researchers from NASA, because plastics used in everyday furniture emit pollutants (benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene) whose levels are maximal during warm and humid periods. Interestingly, NASA recommends that one of the top ten indoor plants to remove these pollutants is the Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea Seifritzii). As such, it's becoming a global imperative to include renewable, biodegradable and recycled materials in products we constantly interact with to improve the planet's and our quality-of-life.

As the Great Pacific Garbage Patch gets bigger - currently the size of Texas and mainly made up of plastic waste, and more and more plastic products are produced, consumers must question the validity of manufacturers and designers claims that their pieces are "eco-friendly", "sustainable" or the fact that their pieces have garnered an environmental accreditation because of their ability to be recycled, when their products are produced from inherently eco-toxic materials. At odds with claims of recyclability and sustainability is the reality that the recycled content in many of these products is non-existent, because manufacturers aren't able to reuse polymers which have been cross-contaminated, whilst the the crude oil industry (the major contributor to environmental degradation) professes to only be able to supply current petroleum product demand for the next 40-50 years. Interestingly, only 4-5 percent of each barrel of crude oil is used for the production of aromatics (polymers), therefore each time a plastic product is produced, 25 times its volume is used in other products which create further environmental waste management problems. On another point, polymers such as HDPE (used in public seating from recycled milk containers) and ABS, pose a high flammability risk, yet the general public is sold the warm fuzzy claim that these materials have been recycled and repurposed for something that previously was made from trees or natural materials. Even with the advent of bio-polymers, which simply negate the toxic material origin of petrochemical-based plastics, many designers and consumers really don't see the bigger issue, and that is oversupply feeding overconsumption.

As the market becomes saturated and diluted with mass-produced pieces that generate minor profit margins, these designers and manufacturers are perpetuating an industry of creative prostitution for items which once imbued much pride, effort and time-honoured skills. Whether it's fibre-glassed, blow moulded, rotomolded or injection molded, plastic furniture is fast becoming the equivalent of a slang word in our design vocabulary. More and more designers are trading blows for the cheapest possible seat which can be churned out in the shortest possible amount of time. Eventually this constant market dilution will rationalise the design industry, as designers and their respective manufacturers will no longer be able to sustain this type of production model. Recently, in a case in the US, 80,000 monobloc chairs were recalled due to structural failures in three chairs, which gave way under normal circumstances. Therefore, it stands to reason that quality rather than quantity is an imperative, and designers, manufacturers and businesses that try to project a wholesome image through their products ease of accessibility to the general consumer, must stop this practice.

After completing a mentorship with David Trubridge, one of the world's leading environmentally aware designers, I learnt that an important fundamental analogy of his, was that of the human race's addiction to junk food - not only as a food source, but as a cultural and creative extension of our day-to-day lives. Everytime I pass a certain high-end design store, I'm beguiled by the growing corner repository of plastic odds and ends that pertrudes so ominously over the streetscape with it's sickeningly sweet colours and cheap plagiaristic cues from classic moments in design history. At the cheap end of the market, we're bombarded by the war cry "buy now, pay later" that's projected from a box that's our main connection with humanity. We jest and conclude that these unprovoked assaults on our senses are merely prompting us to buy junk, but then eventually buy these ephemeral pieces as a quick fix, when we know they will only fulfill our needs (emotional, aesthetic and practical) momentarily. As we move to ban junk food ads during our children's prime time viewing, so must we endeavour to reduce the amount of unnecessary mass-produced synthetic products, that forcibly encroach upon our aesthetic diction and basic survival needs, reducing the standards and quality of our reason for being.