In the Greek port of Piraeus, colorful 3D-printed lounge chairs and vases are dotted between enormous 3D-printing machinery, in a former 1800s gas company building. As you enter, the first things you see are big bags of plastic fishing nets waiting to be transformed into furniture and other functional products by plastic recycling design company, BlueCycle. This circular economy champion diverts plastic waste from the Mediterranean Sea to the poolside patios of Greece's design hotels.
‘BlueCycle started as a research initiative in 2017,’ says Suzanna Laskaridis, who has been at the helm of the project since its inception. Born into a Greek shipping family, Suzanna moved to London to study fine art. Upon returning to Greece, she focused her passions for design and sustainability on a problem she knew a lot about from the family business: plastic waste from the shipping industry. More than half a million tons of plastic finds its way into the Mediterranean Sea each year and this is set to quadruple by 2050, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
‘We collect material from our own cleanups and those run by other NGOs [non-government organizations], as well as waste from abandoned or working fish farms and manufacturers, taking things that would otherwise go to landfill,’ says Suzanna, in the courtyard of the warehouse. All the waste that makes its way to BlueCycle's headquarters is from fishing and shipping activities, and much is abandoned in the Mediterranean. ‘Greece is a huge shipping country and a huge fishing country; it can't be ignored that this is a huge problem,’ says Suzanna. BlueCycle even has diving teams to collect waste and a hotline that local fishermen can call to report discarded nets and plastic ropes across Greece.
The discarded waste consists of high-quality, durable plastic that can transform into other, useful household objects. Polyamide, nylon, polypropylene and polyethylene can all be turned into pellets that can then be used for 3D printing under the watchful eye of Suzanna and her team at BlueCycle. ‘I'm not a big fan of things that just take up space and that's one of the reasons why we don't make small items, trinkets or that kind of thing. You don't want something that's basically turning itself into more waste,’ she says.
BlueCycle's curved stools and benches in bold colors are all stamped with the vertical lines and gradients that are characteristic of the 3D-printing technique. Every piece of furniture is one of a kind and custom-made, each with its own unique color gradient that depends entirely on the rope or net waste it's made from. No single piece of furniture is identical to another, from the curved chairs to the glass-topped tables, making them highly desirable to design enthusiasts and collectors. In 2020, BlueCycle won the RO Guiltless Plastic Award, sponsored by Milan's Rossana Orlandi Gallery, for diverting waste plastic from the ocean and turning it into something stylish and functional.
One particularly special thing about a piece of BlueCycle's furniture is that it can be returned to the workshop, melted down again, and turned into something entirely new. ‘I think plastic has a bad reputation but I don't think it's a bad material. The problem is when it's single-use,’ says Suzanna, who makes a point of explaining that the plastic pellets BlueCycle uses can be sold on and reused by others in the plastics industry with similar aspirations. ‘One company we've been talking to is interested in making watch parts from our recycled plastic,’ Suzanna says, as a busload of local school children arrive at the studio to learn about the possibilities of plastic waste.
Currently, Suzanna is working on some tiles that will soon go into production. Recycled marine rope is mixed with cement to create a muted terrazzo effect that's indistinguishable from the classic sixties tile so prevalent in modernist design. These will all be used in interior applications by architects inspired by BlueCycle's circular model. ‘Everyone working with us is taking a leap of faith and trying something new,’ says Suzanna. ‘We need to completely shift the way that we've been thinking about plastic.’ Something to think about when you're lying on your ex-fishing-rope sun lounger.