Recycled Plastics project

As part of our involvement with the European funded OD&M project (Open Design & Manufacturing) the lab ran a co-design and workshop based brief following on from the work ‘Growing Space’ exhibited at Arts Work of the Future at the TATE Exchange in March 2018. This project was developed in collaboration with students and staff from the UAL Digital Maker Collective.

THE BREIF:

GROWING SPACE 2.0

The Growing Space project investigated open source and flat pack furniture, end of life materials, urban agriculture and sustainable food systems.
The aim of this next stage of the project was to improve upon the initial ideas explored at the TATE Exchange of building a modular growing system with a higher consideration for material choices and the impact this has on the environment.
Initially the growing structure was to be located in the Makerspace at Chelsea College of Art. It was planned to be open to all staff and students at UAL, and would act as much a space for thematic discussion and knowledge exchange as a practical space for growing things.
Ultimately the outcome of these co-design workshops should serve as a starting point to inspire a community of interest and further development and act as a template that could be used for other grow space projects pursuing similar ideas.

Fig 1. example of a growing space at Green Lab
Fig 1. Green Lab growing space
 
DESIGN CRITERIA

The second iteration of Growing Space 2.0 should aim to fulfill the following criteria:

  • Semi-permanent structure
  • Work as a practical growing space – able to withstand humidity, water and light on a fairly regular basis
  • Materials should be considered, sustainable and recycled/salvaged where possible
  • The construction should use simplified building methods – allowing accessibility to multiple locations and skill sets
  • The system should be easily scaleable and modular, with improvements made as necessary
  • The project must work in the context of open design
  • Ideally the structure will be visually interesting and engaging – biophilic
  • There could be a capacity for some degree of autonomy – ie. self sufficient through automated growing/ watering/ lighting systems

This second stage of project was ran as a series of 10 co-design workshops which included using various idea generation techniques, hands on group making and a responsive design process.
Below is a break down of each workshop and the co-design techniques used, including learning points on how to improve the efficiency of group workshop if to be conducted again.
 

WORKSHOP 1

During the first workshop we discussed the larger aims of the project as well as our design parameters and the physical space that we had to work with. We shared projects that we found inspiring and could use as a reference.

We also used idea generation exercises to get as many ideas on the table as we could and to engage the whole group.

Exercise 1: Brain warm-up – Exquisite corpse

  • Fold a piece of A4 paper into 3-6 folds
  • In 1 minute, each person draws anything (often part of a person) then folds the paper over to hide the section they have just drawn.
  • starter lines are drawn for the next person;these lines do not need to align with the previous drawing.
  • Pass the paper to the next person.
  • Repeat steps 2 -4 until all the folds of the paper have been drawn on.
  • Drawings are unfolded and each person describes the drawing they are holding.

Exercise 2: Concept Ideation

  • This was a Fast-paced drawing exercise to generate multiple ideas within a 4 minute time allocation
  • Materials: A5 paper and a thick pen (eg. Sharpie)
  • The aim was to produce as many ideas as possible on each of the following themes:
  • 1. Recycled/ use of material
    2. Modularity/ scalability
    3. Accessibility

    Key points:

  • 4 minutes spent on each theme
  • Each idea should have 3 elements: sketch, annotations and a title
  • The focus was on many diverse ideas, not quality or fully formed concepts
  • Each idea remained accessible to other members of the group
  • All idea were good ideas, any idea could be used by another group member as inspiration
  • After 4 minutes, the ideas were shared with the group and displayed on a large wall for the group to see
  • The process was repeated for each theme
  • The process can be repeated as many times as required until sufficient ideas are generated

Fig 2. most popular ideas
Fig 2. Most popular ideas from idea generation exercises

Exercise 3: Voting for popular ideas

    The aim of the voting stage was to rapidly focus on popular ideas within the group, while removing potential conflict over ideas that were not relevant
    Key points:

  • Each member of the group was given two pieces of monopoly money with different values (or use coloured post-its with a value system eg. numbered 1,2)
  • Everyone had two votes for their favourite ideas – higher value = favourite idea, lower value = runner up
  • The ideas with the most votes were discussed and analysed to establish which elements were of interest to the group
  • These elements were listed on a single piece of A4

Fig 3. Voting for popular ideas
Fig 3. Voting for popular ideas

Outcomes from workshop 1:
Through the above exercises the following ideas were chosen to focus on:

  • Materials:
    Making sheet materials from recycled waste resources ie. melted plastic bottles
    The chosen material could provide a desired sound/ noise installation to compliment visual design
  • Form:
    Pin board design – personal planters that can be attached to a communal wall to create a growing system (allowing each participant to take there own planter home – sense of responsibility)
  • Modularity/ Scalability:
    Create a Modular design that allows for interaction – the whole space can can be rearranged either within the space or moved and refigured for another location
  • Accessibility:
    The structure should remain accessible at all levels including: phyiscally accessible, economically accessible, skill set accessible (all processes should be fairly easy to learn with little specialist knowledge required)


 
WORKSHOP 2

The aim of workshop 2 was to develop the ideas generated in workshop 1 – prototyping in cardboard to test sizes and forms. Cardboard prototyping is useful to explore the physical dimensions of an idea, to establish how a design interacts with a person, or to explore form. At this stage we were still exploring multiple design ideas to establish form, interaction, relevance and scale.

Exercise 1: Cardboard prototyping:

  • Materials needed: Cardboard, scissors, craft knives, masking tape, rulers, pens/pencils
    Key points:

  • This was a fast-paced making exercise to build upon individual elements generated in workshop 1.
  • We spent 15 – 20 minutes exploring each of the three themes – materials, scalability, accessibility
  • Protoypes were made at a scale of 1:5 or 1:1
  • These were all rough sketch models to translate an idea rather than creating a polished model.
  • After each theme the prototypes were presented to the group and discussed.

Fig 4. Cardboard prototypes
Fig 4. Cardboard prototypes

Exercise 2: Voting for popular ideas
At the end of workshop 2 we used a voting system again to focus on the most popular ideas and common areas of interest.

    Key points:

  • Each person was given 2 post it notes to vote with
  • As well as using the post it to vote for favourite ideas, a keyword was used to the establish the specific reason why an idea was favoured – this quickly enable prototypes without votes to be removed
  • The owner of each post it and keyword were asked to explain in more details what they liked about the prototype
  • A summary of the keywords that were used during this voting were grouped together

Fig 5. Discussing prototypes and voting with keywords
Fig 5. Discussing prototypes and voting with keywords

Outcomes from workshop 2
At the end of this workshop it was decided that we needed to focus our ideas in order to move forward with workshop 3. We decided to use a gulley-style system for planting and that the over all structure would be supported from one wall (rather than free standing or wall mounted)

 
WORKSHOP 3

The focus of workshop 3 was to start adding some physical design parameters to the ideas that had been generated. This was to include discussion around the core themes of modularity, scalability and accessibility as well as possible materials, manufacturing processes and dimensions.

Materials vs Form

    • The group voted on whether the structure should be led by its form or the materials used in its construction (ie should the materials used dictate the form it takes or is the form of primary importance with the materials subsequently decided to compliment it?)

This was essential to establish the area of focus for the development of the design.

Key decisions:

  • The group decided the structure should be materials-led, allowing an opportunity to explore material making
  • Materials should be recycled where possible without compromising functionality
  • It was agreed that it may be impractical for every element to be made/recycled, for example plumbing – in this case materials will be purchased.
  • The sustainability of all components should be addressed through a materials and processes impact study.
  • All manufacturing processes should be open and accessible to a specifically non-technical general public.

Investigating recycled materials:
We discussed materials and processes that would allow us to recycle a waste material and turn it into something new:

Aluminium:

  • Recycled aluminium cans can be melted down using a home-made bucket furnace and then cast.
  • This process is widely documented online (instructables, YouTube) and can be carried out without specialist equipment
  • Using aluminium could also allow the potential to explore sonic effects – dripping water into gulleys would create a sound installation – creating an environment.
  • Aluminium has the potential to be cast as a sheet and folded to create a frame structure.

Plastic:

  • Recycled food-safe thermoplastics can be melted down and cast and could have a possible application for the gulley structure.
  • Food safe thermoplastics include:
  • HDPE (high density polyethylene) used for plastic bags and milk bottles and some bottle tops, recycling code 2
  • LDPE (high density polyethylene, less strong), recycling code 4
  • PET (potentially not suitable for gulleys due to higher melting point), recycling code 1

Cardboard prototyping:
Cardboard prototyping was used further to explore the physical size of things within the space and to make decisions about the dimensions of the structure.

  • Materials used: Cardboard, craft knife, scissors, masking tape, pens
    Key points:

  • We decided to build the structure catering to the size of an average person (c.161 – 175mm) and a lettuce (30cm diameters)
  • We also agreed that accessibility of the structure to people outside of these averages was important and needed to be considered.

Fig 6. Drawer system prototype & exploring scale with cardboard
Fig 6. Drawer system prototype & exploring scale with cardboard

Fig 7. Design details and scale
Fig 7. Design details and scale

Specific design details:
Focusing on the idea of a drawer system that was favoured by the group the structure should consist of expandable modules with horizontal drawers – this design also allows the structure to become a large focus of the room when wanted but can also reduce it’s size, adapting to the needs of the space and it’s users.
The supporting frame to hold the drawers will be transparent/just frame work allowing the focus to be on the drawers (planters) and the plants.

 
WORKSHOP 4

Having previously decided to focus on materials and the potential to recycle waste worskhop 4 focused on initial material making with plastics. The findings of these experiments informed amendments to the design.

Methodology:

  • Plastics bags (HDPE or PP):
    Each bag was cut to fold out to a single layer, multiple bags were layered together and heated with a heat gun on a wooden mold – through this initial hands on making the group discussed the necessity of an oven and clamps for future workshops.

Fig 8. Plastic bags cut into single layers then heated with a heat gun
Fig 8. Plastic bags cut into single layers then heated with a heat gun

  • Plastic bottle (PET or HDPE):
    Method 1: Shred the bottles into small pieces with a paper shredder then heated with a heat gun
    Mehtod 2: Cut the bottle in half, heated the plastic with a heat gun around a wooden shape to shrink and mold the plastic to the wood – we then removed the wood after cooling leaving shaped plastic.

Fig 9. Various plastic melting techniques
Fig 9. Various plastic melting techniques

  • End results:
    Method A: plastic does not hold together well unless multiple layers of plastic were added individually.
    Mehtod B: Created a thicker sheet of plastic
    Method C: Created a brittle form as the aluminium couldn’t transfer the heat to the plastic fast enough.
    Mehtod D: Created a composite (non recyclable) it was strong although had a rough finish.
    Method E: Had the greatest potential for use as gullies, although limited by the dimensions of the bottle. investigation needed into joining multiple sections and using opaque material (problematic for light exposure resulting in algae growth)

Outcomes from workshop 4:

  • Both heating and compression is needed when reforming plastic bags into a single material
  • Plastic bottles (PET) have a higher melting point and are difficult to reform into a single material from shredded parts
  • A single piece of PET or HDPE can be easily shrunk around a form when heat is applied


 
WORKSHOP 5

The aim for workshop 5 was to focus on 2 main areas; firstly to further develop the specific details of the modular drawer design, and secondly to complete additional tests in plastic following the initial experiments and findings from workshop 4.

Part 1: Material experiments – Plastic

  • Following workshop 4, we focused on the combination of heat and compression to melt plastic – initially using an iron

Fig 10. using an iron to heat and compress plastic bags (PP) and PET plastic cut into shreds
Fig 10. using an iron to heat and compress plastic bags (PP) and PET plastic cut into shreds

Part 2: Developing details for the modular drawer design:
We rapidly re-sketched the design to formulate the specifics of the expandable structure and this included details of:

  • methods of expansion ie. in how many directions and to what degree could the drawers pull out.
  • What joints would be used for the structure.
  • Details of the external frame work – what materials etc.
  • Individual drawer/ planter details.

 
Fig 11. Developing specific designs of the structure by rapidly re-sketching and building a small scale wooden prototype
Fig 11. Developing specific designs of the structure by rapidly re-sketching and building a small scale wooden prototype

Considering budget and timeline:
Having gained an initial understanding of the time commitment that material making requires we drew together a project timeline. Having decided on the structure size and additional materials for the framework we started to work out costings – a major expense was added via the aluminium profile to be used for the structures framework.

Outcomes of workshop 5: Reflections
By the end of workshop 5 the project ran into some restrictions regarding both the timeline and the budget – with many members of the group having limited time to commit to the project, a growing uncertainty of whether the pre-arranged grow space within Chelsea would be available and a limit on the budget the project required a re- review at the start of workshop 6.

 
WORKSHOP 6

At the beginning of workshop 6 the group decided to re-focus the most important aspects of the project – the project that had been developed through workshops 1-5 raised challenges in terms of accessibility (both economically and the skills required) and time scale.
We decided to re-focus the ethos of the project and review the design and material choices to assess feasibility.

Material re-focus:
Despite voting (in workshop 2) for a materials led approach the group had still been led by form – and as the form (incl use of alluminium profile) was contributing a huge expense we decided to move away from an over-complicated structure and re-focus on material use. Furthering experiments with food-safe plastic the group could easily and at virtually no cost produce a series of recycled plastic planters for growing.

The importance of accessiblity was re-iterated, including:

  • Availability of materials (waste plastic is widely available around the world)
  • Accessibility of process (re purposing plastic can be done in a lo-fi and non technical process)

 
The new direction had 2 main elements to focus:

  • How to make a planter in recycled plastic ie. process, materials, dimensions
  • How does it attach to one another/ a structure (possibility for scale)

 
Fig 12. Initial designs for the simplified recycled plastic planter
Fig 12. Initial designs for the simplified recycled plastic planter

 
WORKSHOP 7

For workshop 7 we focused solely on how to make recycled plastic planters. Having conducted initial tests in workshop 4 we had found the HDPE plastic (from milk bottles and bottle lids) was the best plastic to focus on due to a low melting point and the fact it was already food safe.

Method:

  • Mixed HDPE (milk bottles and bleach bottles) cut into very small pieces by hand (with scissors) (we found this extremely time consuming)
  • HDPE pieces put onto a baking tray and put in the oven at 190c
  • HDPE constantly monitored whilst in the oven to check it was melting but not burning.
  • *note HDPE bleach bottles are not food safe but were suitable to use for the initial testing process

Learning points:

  • You need to be careful with the oven setting – we set the temperature to high and caused the plastic pieces to burn and turn brown
  • As we were not adding pressure or compression in this initial test it meant that whilst the plastic was melting it wasnt bonding together to form a single material
  • Cutting the plastic into such small pieces was very time consuming and we found it to be unnecessary in the end

Fig 13. HDPE cut into very small strips and put in the oven at to higher temperature, resulted in burnt plastic
Fig 13. HDPE cut into very small strips and put in the oven at to higher temperature, resulted in burnt plastic

 
WORKSHOP 8

The aim for workshop 8 was to create the first recycled plastic planter sample – we focused on improving our techniques for melting the plastic and making a sheet material.

* Note: HDPE melts at around 120-180c. Be careful when handling melted HDPE as it remains hot for a long time and can burn bare skin.

Method:

  1. The oven was preheated to 160c
  2. Whole HDPE bottles caps (ie. not cut) were put on greaseproof paper and onto a baking tray in the oven
  3. Milk bottles (HDPE) were cut into 5cm2 pieces and added to the tray with the bottle caps
  4. After 10-15 minutes, the mixed HDPE was removed from the oven and rolled/ pressed together between two sheets of baking paper
  5. This was then placed back into the oven, with step 4 being repeated every 10 – 15 minutes for approximately 1 hour, adding more HDPE each time
  6. Once enough plastic had been melted to cover the mould and it was sticking to each other the HDPE was heated again and pressed into a flat shape by hand
  7. This HDPE mix was then heated again
  8. The HDPE was put into a rectangular wooden mold, sandwiched between baking paper and clamped for 2 minutes
  9. The cooling HDPE sheet was removed from the wooden mould, placed back in the oven and reheated for approximately 10 minutes
  10. Steps 8 – 9 were repeated approximately 5 times until a 1cm thick sheet was formed
  11. The HDPE sheet was removed from the mould, draped over a positive form (loaf tin) and put back in the oven
  12. This was reheated for 10 minutes allowing gravity to pull the melting sheet over the positive (loaf tin) form
  13. The HDPE draped over the positive (loaf tin) was removed from the oven and another mould (loaf tin of the same size) was clamped over the top (creating a two part sandwich mould)
  14. Once the HDPE was rigid it was removed from the mold and cooled with cold water

 
Fig 14. Melting HDPE combined together and reheated into a flattish sheet
Fig 14. Melting HDPE combined together and reheated into a flattish sheet

Fig 15. Melted HDPE placed into a wooden mould with greaseproof paper either side & a wooden lid added
Fig 15. Melted HDPE placed into a wooden mould with greaseproof paper either side & a wooden lid added

Fig 16. HDPE clamped in mould to flatten further and then removed after 2 minutes
Fig 16. HDPE clamped in mould to flatten further and then removed after 2 minutes

Fig 17. HDPE sheet placed on top of mould (loaf tin) and put back in oven, after 10 minutes another loaf tin was put on top
Fig 17. HDPE sheet placed on top of mould (loaf tin) and put back in oven, after 10 minutes another loaf tin was put on top

Fig 18. Loaf tins clamped together, and then once HDPE has cooled remove from the tins
Fig 18. Loaf tins clamped together, and then once HDPE has cooled remove from the tins

Learning points:

  • Milk bottles and caps melted easily
  • Shampoo bottles were harder to melt (thicker HDPE)
  • Larger sized pieces (compared to workshop 7) significantly reduced the processing time, yet only slightly increased the melting time
  • Compression/ rolling process is crucial – melting whole sheets with no compression takes a little longer and the sheets did not bond together properly (and could be separated after)
  • Using grease proof paper in the (non-stick) loaf tins was not necessary and resulted in paper getting stuck in the folds of plastic as it was compressed
  • Time to melt, and the number of re-melts that were required results in significant making time for one planter. this is limited by the size of the oven and the quantity of plastic that fit in at one time


 
WORKSHOP 9 & 10

The aim of workshop 9 was to prepare large quantities of melted HDPE as a sheet material that could then been moulded into a planter in workshop 10.

Method:

  1. The oven was preheated to 160c
  2. The sheet material prepared in workshop 9 was placed on greaseproof paper and put into the oven for 20 – 30 minutes
  3. The HDPE sheet was put into the rectangular wooden mold and clamped for approximately 2 minutes (to make it thinner)
  4. The HDPE sheet was removed from the mold, placed over the inverted loaf tin and put back into the oven
  5. This was reheated for 10 minutes allowing gravity to pull the melting sheet over the positive loaf tin form (with no greaseproof paper in between)
  6. The HDPE and loaf tin were removed from the oven and a matching loaf tin was clamped over the top of the melted sheet (creating a two part sandwich mould)
  7. Once the HDPE started to cool the clamps were removed, putting both loaf tins with HDPE still sandwiched in between back in the oven
  8. After 10-15 minutes the remelted HDPE in the mould was removed from the oven and the excess HDPE that had squeezed out of the sides was cut of with a craft knife (this is easy to do whilst the plastic is still hot)
  9. Once cooled the HDPE planter was removed from the tins and cooled with cold water

 
Fig 19. HDPE sheet material from workshop 9, reheated and clamped in wooden mould
Fig 19. HDPE sheet material from workshop 9, reheated and clamped in wooden mould

Fig 20. HDPE sheet melted over inverted loaf tin
Fig 20. HDPE sheet melted over inverted loaf tin

Fig 21. HDPE clamped between two loaf tins
Fig 21. HDPE clamped between two loaf tins

Fig 22. Excess HDPE trimmed with a craft knife and then planter removed from tins once cooled
Fig 22. Excess HDPE trimmed with a craft knife and then planter removed from tins once cooled

Learning points:

  • The time require to melt the HDPE sheet was significant due to the thickness of the sheet
  • The capacity of the oven was limiting as only one sheet could be melted at a time (we were using a portable toaster oven)
  • The longer the sheet had to melt in the oven the easier it was to mould it around the loaf tin
  • By using no grease proof paper we achieved a much smoother and better finish for the planter than in workshop 8
  • There were small air bubbles in the base of the planter due to the second loaf tin being placed on top and the air not being able to escape
  • Potentially this could be rectified in step 6 by melting the HDPE inside the loaf tin (rather than on top of the inverted tin)
  • Trimming the edges removed excess HDPE, but the finish was still fairly rough – to achieve a better finish the planter would need to be sanded and polished

CONCLUSION

This project ran into a number of challenges, the greatest of which was the complete co-design nature of the workshops that we were determined to maintain. Whilst we tried to fairly vote to acknowledge the groups priorities for the direction of the project this also meant that the project could easily change as the priorities changed, allowing us to drift our focus on a number of occasions – perhaps a more structured plan for each workshop and the outcomes we were trying to achieve from the start would have helped to maintain a solid direction.

Using this group voting system for decisions also quickly showed that the group had a shared interest in exploring sustainable and recycled materials which perhaps didn’t contribute to achieving the initial goals we set at the start of the brief.

Having said this the project proved as a useful exercise and learning process for how to work collaboratively, and we were continuously forced to reiterate to ourselves the fundamentals of accessable design. Although the outcome became a simplified version of a growing system, producing recycled planters the group gained rich insight into various disciplines and areas of design that they had not exeprienced before.

Project participants:
Rosie (Research fellow, Open Design & manufacturing, UAL)
Ed (Design Researcher, Green Lab)
Anoushka (Design Researcher, Green Lab)
Eloise (MA Interior Spatial Design, Chelsea College of Art, UAL)
Hanna (MA Interior Spatial Design, Chelsea College of Art, UAL)
Julia (MA Interior Spatial Design, Chelsea College of Art, UAL)
Benny (BA Interior Spatial Design, Chelsea College of Art, UAL)