A Virtual Exhibition Explores Ways to Upcycle Single-Use Plastics

The online show “Precious Waste” is the result of an annual collaboration between UK design firm PriestmanGoode and students at the Royal College of Art.

For the second year, the five-year-old collaboration between students at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and PriestmanGoode, takes the form of an online exhibition, “PGxRCA, Precious Waste: Single Use Plastics Re-born.” 

This year the firm asked RCA students to create new materials out of single-use plastic waste; their brief was to “reuse, rethink and redefine this wasted resource, to find creative solutions for new surfaces based on aesthetic and practical principles, and to consider the energy consumption and resources required to repurpose their source material.”

The prompt went on to explain the timeliness of the single-use plastics crisis: “In 2020, the global pandemic led to many changes in the way we live, work, consume and interact with daily objects. Vast numbers of items are now wrapped in plastic for hygiene and safety reasons, or simply for an enhanced perception of cleanliness. But as a society, we must continue to work towards a more sustainable world. And as designers, we have a responsibility to develop solutions to reduce our waste and increase our positive impact.”

plastic material samples
Bethany Voak’s project reimagined potential uses for expanded polystyrene packaging. COURTESY PRIESTMAN GOODE

The work of eleven RCA students is featured in this project’s online exhibition, including top winner Bethany Voak’s reimagination of the lifespan and potential uses of expanded polystyrene packaging; Voak’s research found this material 100 percent recyclable but not commonly recycled in the United Kingdom. 

During her research, Voak discovered an organic compound that causes the polystyrene to change into a moldable consistency that is hard compared to polystyrene’s normal sponginess, and that can be smooth or textured. Voak’s goals, the exhibition said, are “to shine a light on an issue in the UK recycling system, and also show that the uses of polystyrene can go beyond the packaging and thermal insulation that it is commonly known for,” for use in both leisure and hospitality environments.

Yuke Liu created a set of painting tools from the foam nets packaging used to store and transport fruit. The tools were used to make the above markings. COURTESY PRIESTMANGOODE

PriestmanGoode deemed two other students’ concepts “highly commended.” Henrietta Dent created new textiles out of polypropylene and polyethylene nets found in supermarket waste streams. Semi-rigid and malleable, the textiles allow color and light to diffuse through them, and could be used in an interior transport environment, such as the subway, “to add vibrancy and juxtapose against a neutral space,” the exhibition said.

The second “highly commended” concept, by Yuke Liu, features a set of painting tools created from recycled, single-use, EPE fruit net foam. The color palette for these tools is divided into four groups, soil, body, ocean, and air, which correspond to the four key areas affected by single-use plastics. These tools were designed for use in museums, creative workshops, stores, and domestic settings.

One of the runners-up, Liv Wilkinson, considers plastic not only an “ocean issue” but also a “desert issue,” since she said plastic bags are blown across the desert “even if disposed of properly, resulting in harm to the natural landscape and wildlife.” She created new materials out of plastic bags, which could be used in the lounge interiors of UAE’s drone taxi airports, now only a concept.

plastic fabric samples
Samples of the fabric material Henrietta Dent made from plastic netting. COURTESY PRIESTMANGOODE

Another runner-up, Vicki Zhiwei Hong, who comes from Fujian, China, collected waste materials such as incense packaging, red plastic bags, and tea light cups frequently found at Buddhist temples. Taking these materials she designed a lotus-shaped table lamp which emits the scent of incense when it is used; in Buddhist culture the lotus shape represents purity and dignity.

Maria Kafel-Bentkowska, head of PriestmanGoode’s color, material, and finish team—which is made up of experts in textiles, new materials, trends, and product designs, and which oversees the RCA collaboration—said one of the main challenges facing the RCA students who participated in the project this year is they did not have access to the school’s lab facilities and had to “get creative with how to make new materials within their own home environments.”

She said a number of the students, including Voak, will continue to develop their projects during their second year of study, and that PriestmanGoode will follow them to see if their concepts are actually realized.

plastics samples
Bethany Voak’s project reimagined potential uses for expanded polystyrene packaging. COURTESY PRIESTMANGOODE

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]