Vestre Turns “Ownerless” Ocean Plastics into Public Benches

Vestre is a Norwegian public furniture manufacturer that creates social meeting places for millions of people. Owner and CEO Jan Christian Vestre sees the company as a means to do good, under the motto “Everyone can save the world – a little bit.” As the first company in the world to issue Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs ) published, they work on a triple bottom line and measure social, environmental and financial results. They have made long-term sustainability a prerequisite for their business activities and have linked this commitment to nine of the UN’s sustainable development goals. We caught up with design director Allan Hagerup to find out more about what he believes is the world’s first bank made from ownerless and recycled ocean plastic.

Tell me a little about your childhood, education and background, how you first became interested in creativity, design and sustainability.

I grew up in a remote village in the far north of Norway. During the long and dark winter months, I developed an interest in drawing and loved creating cartoon characters and designing cars. My father, who runs a graphic design company, inspired my sense of creativity and I spent many hours in his office giving me various creative tasks.

I moved to Oslo in 1998 and studied at the Einar Granum Art School for two years before being admitted to a furniture design course at the Oslo National Academy of Arts. I completed my studies with a master’s degree in the social use of patio furniture in public areas and designed the bench “Dialog”, for which I received the 2010 National Award for Design Excellence.

After I graduated, Vestre put Dialog into production. I started working as a freelance designer at Vestre and eventually took on a permanent position as a design manager, where I continued to focus on creating social hangouts. Working at Vestre and the holistic approach to design and sustainable manufacturing sparked my interest in sustainable design.

How would you describe this project?

In line with Vestre’s broader focus on sustainable manufacturing, we wanted to create a bench out of 100% ownerless marine plastics to show that it is possible to reuse waste to make great products.

The project is about highlighting the responsibility of the manufacturer and designer to work towards the longevity of raw materials by reusing materials when the original product is no longer used and ensuring the responsible disposal of non-recyclable materials.

The project is also about recognizing the vital work of volunteers cleaning up the banks of plastic waste and how their efforts are at the heart of this product.

What inspired this project?

Vestre is a partner in Ogoori, a company that sells ownerless marine plastics by renting the raw material to manufacturers for use in its products and ensuring that the plastic stays in the circular economy. To showcase this new material, I worked with Vestre to create a product for their collection.

The design process was mostly about the plastic itself and the story behind it. This guided both the form and the design process. The circular economy of reusing material – in this case material so clearly rejected by society and not recovered through controlled cycles – was also central throughout the process. To visualize this cycle, it made sense to develop a product that communicates with the ocean. The coast is meant to be placed on a jetty by the water or on a rocky archipelago so you can sit on the bench and gaze out to sea.

The history of plastic is also reflected in the way the shape of the bench borrows its design and theme from the marine environment. From the front you can see the outline of a boat’s hull, and the plastic parts are lined up in a protective steel frame and appear to be floating on the surface. The steel frame extends upward on thin legs and lifts the plastic material onto a base. The different shades of green and gray of the plastic material are due to the combination of different collected plastic colors, which at the same time reflect the color of the sea.

What waste (and other) materials do you use, how did you choose those particular materials and how do you source them?

Coast has a steel frame that has been hot-dip galvanized and powder coated. The steel comes from Sweden and has an average of 30% fewer emissions than the world average for steel production. The seat is made of plastic that was collected on Norwegian shores, where the ownerless plastic accumulates and destroys nature and natural cycles.

When did you first become interested in using waste as a raw material and what motivated this decision?

To be honest, when designing products I have always been reluctant to use plastic components, preferring to use natural products like steel and wood. However, when Vestre started reusing marine plastics, it was one material that inspired me. Since Vestre doesn’t use plastic in its products, it makes even more sense. By only using marine plastic, we are helping with the problem without adding to it.

What processes does the material have to go through to become the finished product?

The marine plastic is sorted by type and washed, dried and ground into pellets. These pellets can be used in the same manufacturing processes as new plastics. However, the quality of the plastic is of course not as stable and durable as with new specially made plastic mixtures. The different types of plastic are cast into the seat slats used in the product. Since the plastic is less durable, I wanted to make it a replaceable part of the bench rather than a part of the mainframe.

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they get back into the circular economy?

The plastic pellets are not sold, but rented to manufacturers and provided with a QR code. This ensures that the exchangeable slats used are returned for new usage cycles.

How did you feel when you first saw the conversion of waste material to product / prototype?

It is an inspiring and enjoyable task to design a bench that uses plastic collected from beaches with the help of volunteers. So it feels good to have created the first bench out of this material for Vestre and to contribute to sustainable development with a product that is accessible to everyone.

I also wondered that something that was thrown away and floated in the sea for a long time could look so interesting and beautiful. The decision to let the material determine the look of the bench and randomly mix the properties of plastic batten based on availability resulted in a surprising and interesting color texture – a design advantage that came from using waste as a raw material.

How did people react to this project?

People are generally very enthusiastic and it is the same with Vestre’s clients who are interested in using both the bank and the raw material for their projects. It’s especially fun to hear that the bank inspired the teams to clean up the banks.

How do you think opinions on waste as a raw material are changing?

I think there is a strong sense of responsibility and concern for the environment that makes people question the throwaway culture. These types of products enable people to make responsible choices. When it is possible to make aesthetically beautiful things out of waste, it adds meaning and value to the product rather than detracting from it.

What does the future hold for you in terms of waste as a raw material?

Much effort is being made to reuse materials and this is trendy in both product design and architecture. Hopefully this bank can play a small role in driving this movement forward.

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