UK-based manufacturers Weez & Merl melt and marble plastic waste like tote bags and turn them into 100% recycled housewares. They operate a free polyethylene waste collection system from local companies in their coastal towns of Brighton and Hove on the UK’s south coast, and work with forward-thinking companies on sustainable solutions from bespoke tabletops to custom surfboard fins. I first discovered their work when I picked up a fascinating coaster in a restaurant and asked the waiter what it was made of, so I had to find out more …
Tell me a little about your childhood, education and background, how you first became interested in creativity, design and sustainability.
Our father is interested in design, architecture, art and engineering, and our mother is interested in crafts and painting. So we had a pretty creative and practical upbringing. When we were young, moving to England was a really difficult transition, but growing up with a different cultural background was a very good thing in the end. When we grew up in Sweden we had a certain respect for nature and we worked a lot of wood, sewed, grew food, gardened and cooked. We’d make things of what we might see lying around, like a test of your imagination – you can’t beat the satisfaction of making something new out of something old. So it makes a lot of sense that we used waste materials in our creative practice!
What are your products made of, how did you choose that particular material and how do you source it?
We use LDPE (low density polyethylene) and MDPE (medium density polyethylene) for different applications – lower density usually for smaller parts like our coasters and medium density for larger parts like table tops to take advantage of their different properties. In 2012 it was clear that plastic bags were being wasted on an epic scale – this was before they had to be paid for in the UK. They were all over the beach so I started collecting them and experimenting with them. A few months later, when a friend who worked in a clothing store told me how much plastic they were throwing away with each delivery, I began to understand the scale of the problem and that most of the waste was generated behind the scenes. After that, I started collecting in this shop regularly. We built on that and now run a free polyethylene waste collection system for local companies here in Brighton & Hove, which saves the company money and means it is actually recycled in this country instead of traveling the world to be recycled or even landfilled be burned or burned.
What inspired this project?
The use of unusual materials has always attracted me throughout my training, but I was inspired and motivated by Prof. Johnathan Chapman who had just started the MA course in Sustainable Design at Brighton University. He gave a talk our freshman year explaining how he had overcome feeling that the world’s environmental problems were too overwhelming to do anything about, which is a common emotional stumbling block for many designers. I was in the middle of this feeling of hopelessness at the time, but he managed to completely change my mind about wanting to make a difference and convinced me not to run away to be a hermit in the forest!
When did you first become interested in using waste as a raw material and what motivated this decision?
Waste became a fixture in 2012. I wanted to be a woodworker when I started studying, but I also wanted to use waste materials, so I often used wood waste in the waste bins and the bark of logs. I was then totally distracted from making materials from natural waste, which resulted in cafes being asked to collect eggshells for me, hair from hairdressers, even wet leaves that need to be removed from clogged drains in the fall, so I experimented with these materials along with natural adhesives, but although they were very beautiful, they weren’t very useful! After avoiding plastics, I ended up trying to melt plastic bags that I found here in Brighton on the beach for my first experiments with polyethylene and found that I really loved the way they shrank when heated, how the shrinking of crispy packets when we were little! I saw ‘natural’ properties in the material that were completely different from what I had previously associated it with. From then on, the mission was to find out what it was capable of, and I began using traditional craft techniques and tools in a variety of ways, from lathing to braiding and wetting, straw work like Orkney chair backs to rammed earth – the latter of what eventually led to compression molding, which is the main technique we use in our work.
What processes does the material have to go through to become the finished product?
After collecting, we remove contaminants such as paper labels and tape by hand. We then melt it down and use colored plastic bags as a dye to create colors that, like paint, can be mixed together to create any color we want. Then we use compression molding to press the plastic into shapes or sheets of different thicknesses. We can then cut the sheets into the desired shape with band saws and table saws and finish the products with grinders or palms. Polyethylene is very similar to pine in density and it’s flexible so there’s no risk of breaking it, and it cuts and grinds beautifully – I realized early on that I could apply all of my woodworking skills to the material and this opened up so many doors to the world of design and craftsmanship.
How did you feel when you first saw the conversion of waste material to product / prototype?
Total fascination! It looked as natural as marble, but the colors and weight made it clear it wasn’t. Working with the molten plastic, however, was the first impressive moment – it moves so organically that people are always amazed when they see us working with it! It’s like a cross between an extremely hot bread dough and melted sugar – it’s strange but familiar.
There is so much to explore with this material in terms of colors and marbling styles that we usually make completely new colors every time that keep it really fresh and fun – it means we experience that allure every time we do something new do. It’s important to keep that spark alive! There is still so much to learn – there is no set of rules to follow, so we have to figure it all out from scratch. Covid suspended our plans to redesign and rebuild our large hydraulic press last year. This is the next big project that we can’t wait to move on so we can finally get on with our bigger work and furniture designs.
What happens to your products at the end of their life? Can they go back to the circular economy?
Polyethylene is not yet recycled by the local authorities, but all of our products are fully recyclable through our return system. Recycling is really important, but ideally it should be a last resort. That is why we are also working on restoration, repair and replacement programs. We hope that our customers will want to keep our products for a very long time, but as a manufacturer of plastic items, we have a great responsibility to provide them with options when they don’t. This type of service was very common not so long ago. The ability to extend the life of the product for as long as possible is such an important part of sustainable design. So sometimes it pays to revive ideas from the past in order to solve current problems.
How did people react to this project?
Merl: People’s reactions over the years have always been so encouraging and sometimes quite funny. When they first picked up one of our coasters without knowing what it was, their arm went up in the air when they expected it to be heavier than natural stone. You’re usually quite baffled and then pleasantly surprised to find out it’s made of plastic waste!
Louise: The support from the companies we collect plastic from has been tremendous too – they get so overwhelmed with so much plastic packaging when they receive orders from their suppliers and they are happy that it is used and not incinerated or landfilled.
How do you think opinions on waste as a raw material are changing?
I’d say attitudes have changed dramatically in the past eight years since I’ve been working with waste on a regular basis. People used to raise an eyebrow and ask no questions when I asked if they could collect materials for me, but now it seems to be partying and starting a conversation every time. Perhaps it’s because people are now more familiar with environmental problems and are therefore more willing to come to terms with solutions. We hope we’ve changed some people’s minds too – that’s definitely our goal. People are becoming more and more demanding about the products they buy – the handcrafted, not the mass-produced, single-use product is becoming more desirable again – objects with a story.
What does the future hold for you in terms of waste as a raw material?
Things are looking pretty good – there are so many inspiring individuals and teams around the world working with new materials made from waste. With recycled plastics, it’s a medium like ceramic, wood, or metal – and we see a future full of plastic artisans. The “Precious Plastic” project started by Dave Hakkens has already inspired and mobilized hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the world to recycle plastic in their own region, often using homemade machines from the open source construction plans published by Hakkens were used. Who knows how many people will be making recycled plastics in 10 years. Plastics are endlessly recyclable if you treat them with respect by not mixing different types together. Likewise, the ways to use and work with them seem endless – there is still so much to discover. The great thing is if we do experiments that don’t work for some reason, we just put them back in the oven to remelt and try again. This way, there is no waste, all of our scraps and even our sanding dust are caught and remelted.