Wonderful Waste

Wonderful Waste with Smile Plastics

“Recycled materials can — and should — be as beautiful as new”. That was the perspective Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan took when reviving the UK-based company Smile Plastics in 2015, aiming to bring out the functionality and aesthetics of materials traditionally classified as “waste”.

With a circular model built into the manufacturing process, all their products and panels are 100% recycled and recyclable, including any offcut plastic scraps. By doing so, they are able to emulate a zero-waste manufacturing system, which they hope will inspire customers and other designers to do the same.

NTS caught up with Adam and Rosalie, the headliners of our fourth Wonderful Waste episode, to talk about the renewal of Smile Plastics, their 2022 Christmas project, and how designers can make an impact on sustainability in commercial businesses.

NTS: Please introduce yourself and tell us: what is Smile Plastics?

Rosalie: I’m Rosalie.

Adam: I’m Adam. We’re the co-founders of Smile Plastics, as it is today.

R: Smile Plastics is a design and manufacturing house that takes recycled plastics and transforms them into large-scale decorative panels and products for interior designers and architects around the world. Adam and I focus very much on new materials development, and we also work on custom materials for our clients as well. I think that’s a real source of inspiration for us on a day-to-day basis.

NTS: What did you both do before Smile Plastics and what made you want to do this?

R: My real passion has always been making in some form and that translated into making a lot of jewellery in my twenties. I started a collection where I was working with precious metals, gold and silver, and paired it with a material that Adam had developed many years ago called Çurface, made from recycled coffee grounds mixed with recycled plastic.

What I really wanted to do was make a bigger impact in some way, and I think Smile Plastics really presented an amazing opportunity for us to do just that. In some ways, it takes all of the different strands of the things that I feel really passionate about and brings it all together into one.

A: Rosalie and I established Smile Plastics today in 2015, but there was an original business set up in the late 80s and ran through all the way to 2008, which unfortunately shut down. I actually worked in that facility, partnering with the original Smile Plastics to produce unusual materials out of waste.

After it disappeared for several years, Rosalie and I felt that a real resource for design and architects was now missing. And we knew that there was an amazing opportunity to recreate it in some sort of manner. So now, we’ve revived it in a very different way, emanating from the idea of making beautiful materials out of plastic waste.

NTS: Why work with plastics specifically?

R: The possibilities of plastics are endless, and they have some amazing properties. I think the real issue with plastics is the management of the materials when it comes to the end of their lives and only seeing them in applications intended for a very short period of time. 

A: The beauty of our plastics is that everything that we produce is 100% recycled and can be ground down and recycled again. We’re using the plastic before it’s been homogenised into something that can then go into manufacturing, so we’re removing quite a lot of energy use in that. The manufacturing process that we’ve developed actually uses about 40% less energy than a normal moulding process for plastics.

R: Because we’re not taking our plastics to super high temperatures, the plastics aren’t getting denatured in the production process, which does mean in theory we can recycle them infinitely, which is a really big thing for us and the sustainability of our business and our products.

NTS: What was one of the latest, most memorable projects you were working on?

A: We’ve been quite lucky to work with Selfridges, the department store, to come up with a way to recycle the previous year’s Christmas decorations into a product. It can be used to display new Christmas products and decorations for the next season of buying. Christmas is one of the most wasteful times of year with people buying decorations, presents, and additional packaging. We really wanted to explore what was possible with the waste from the previous year and also try to celebrate a holiday aspect.

This particular project looked at Christmas baubles and how to use the colours and shapes to influence the pattern of the material. We worked quite closely with an interior design team that used a mood board of flat lays, colours, and graphic inspiration as guidance to steer the creation of the shapes and the pattern for the product.

R: We took some of their baubles, broke them down and re-imagined them into a playful terrazzo effect for Selfridges’s 2022 Christmas display.

NTS: Why do you think design has such a big role in pushing consumers and businesses towards sustainability?

A: There are a couple of factors; industry, commerce, design, and consumers. They all influence each other. But designers are the people who create accents on what’s required and what people want, shaping what the industry will then make.

For example, everyone needs a chair, but a designer can steer it in the direction that then influences the consumer and enables a small catalyst, a sequence of events to unfold, which creates this sort of circularity.

Design is then rewarded and gets to steer and push more. And hopefully, it’s a positive circular event which can only go one way. We’ve seen in the last 15 years the impact that designers have had by creating opportunities for people to engage with recycling in a slightly different way.

Adam Fairweather

R: If anything, there are so many elements of the design process that impact the overall sustainability of something. Designing in a way that eliminates wastage in the first place. There’s the choice of the materials as well in the product, and designing for the end of life, so making it quite easy for it to be disassembled and then reimagined into something else.

And then, finally designing in a way so that thing is built to last and stand. The test of time is also a key consideration as well. Bringing all of those different elements into a design is absolutely crucial.

We’re hoping that we can facilitate better design thinking around material choices. I love this idea of having a world in which there is no waste because everything is reimagined into something new.

Rosalie McMillan

Interviewed by Colin Chee, Elizabeth Price, and Luke Clark.

Edited by Claryss Kuan for length and clarity.

Images by NeverTooSmall & Smile Plastics