We Are PLASTICPeople: How One Company Turns Plastic Into a Design Solution
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 09/14/2021 | 5 Minute Read
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.
While some people are (justifiably) freaking out over discarded plastic clogging up waterways and contaminating the land, the folks behind PLASTICPeople are busy taking that plastic waste and putting it to good use. Plastic bags, styrofoam, and discarded TetraPak containers—while some might see discarded plastic, others see potential.
“It's part of our mission to find solutions for all types of plastic waste, especially the eighty percent of which no one collects and recycles,” PLASTICPeople Founders Nestor Catalan and Nano Morante explained. “Through our unique process, we transform those plastics into useful, durable, safe, and beautiful materials such as panels, boards, and poles. Our materials can be used for building and architectural projects, to make furniture among many other uses.”
PLASTICPeople is, at its heart, a materials company based in Vietnam. Plastic waste is a global problem, but Vietnam presents the perfect spot for this organization to get started as the small, Southeast Asian country is one of the top five polluters of the ocean. By recognizing that plastic and people have caused this problem, PLASTICPeople exists to show that plastic and people can also be the solution—hence the name, which Agency Rice Creative helped develop. Joshua Breidenbach, a founding partner of Rice Creative, is also a board member and the creative director of PLASTICPeople. The agency is working to establish it as an inventive and effective response to the roughly 300 million tons of plastic discarded around the globe each year.
“What I really latched onto was that this is a really big idea, and it touches on everything that I'm passionate about,” said Joshua. “It’s a very punk spirit. Sometimes people’s reactions to PLASTICPeople is, ‘Oh, you mess with trash all day?’ And it’s kind of like, ‘Fuck yeah, we do. We’re saving the world.’ The project is all about hope and naming this group of people that will take action and correct the issue.”
We’re all familiar with the doom and gloom photos of sea life swimming amongst plastic bags, as well as many of the depressing plastic waste statistics out there. So instead of fueling that anxiety and guilt, Joshua has positioned PLASTICPeople as a creative company that makes ordinary, useful, and reliable products by putting our trash to innovative use. Their Instagram celebrates this innovation by highlighting images of what they can create, and in turn, it gives people hope for a better future. Plus, the brand design embraces directness and simplicity, letting the materials speak for themselves.
“Plastic is an amazing material that's everywhere in our lives, so it's not going anywhere,” Joshua admitted. “It's just that we should use it in a better way.”
PLASTICPeople’s upcycled materials come from melting and compressing a mixture of crushed plastics. The team first needs to know the classification of the plastic (which helps inform the different melting points and which plastics will be safe for making items like furniture). Once plastics get crushed down into flakes, these become the key ingredient. After getting mixed and melted down into the correct shapes, they get cooled before trimming them into standard sizes for building materials. Throughout this process, no dyes or chemicals get added—PLASTICPeople materials are 100% plastic waste.
“We combine different types of plastic flakes and colors, following our unique formulation, to prepare the mixture that will be used to create our materials,” Nestor and Nano added. “We don't use additives or new plastic in our process. Our materials are made 100% of ‘natural plastic waste.’ We work with the original properties of the different plastics to give the desired features to our final materials.”
Joshua also commented that PLASTICPeople is working to educate companies about plastic waste management—how to sort it more effectively and pass it to the right hands. That way, it can get processed to create building materials.
“A sort of corrugated metal is the most common kind of roofing material for lower-income structures,” Joshua said. “But the plastic lasts longer, and it’s kind of malleable, so it's more forgiving. It's much more insulating, so it doesn't just heat up like metal. And then, in terms of rain, it's much quieter. The people that were able to take material from the donation, some of them were coming back and saying this is so much better than what they had before.”
PLASTICPeople has also partnered with Pizza 4P’s, a Japanese Italian restaurant based in Vietnam dedicated to sustainability. The restaurant plans to expand over the next few years and has agreed to use PLASTICPeople materials in their restaurants. Over three tons of plastic waste went into their sleek and eco-friendly design for a location in Phnom Penh.
In the same way that PLASTICPeople points out that people are both the problem and the solution, designers have a huge responsibility in the world of single-use plastic and more eco-friendly options as well. As Joshua explained, designers don’t merely design the beauty of something.
“Our task is essentially to design the future,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to be thoughtful and bring solutions to challenges. I've been in scenarios with our clients where we have successfully convinced them to invest much more money into packaging solutions with the promise that, down the road, their clientele will appreciate them more. And it's something that they can proudly communicate. Or, in some cases, it's maybe been promised they can sleep better at night.
“Any good designer—and there are millions and millions of them out there—has that responsibility and that drive to actually just do something better.”
Nestor and Nano want to do better with PLASTICPeople. They hope to scale up and expand to other regions, fostering other partnerships like with Pizza 4P’s and becoming a plausible way to get plastic out of our waste streams, water streams, and backyards and into something valuable.
“We aim to bring our solution all over the World, wherever plastic pollution is a threat,” they said. “Bringing hope and a new sustainable way of living.”