Architecture: New horizons in the waste land: Liz Farrelly meets Jane Atfield, who has creative designs on Britain's unwanted plastic packaging

By Liz Farrelly
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:29

Ask Jane Atfield about recycling and she replies, as anyone might, that she 'tries to do her bit'. Most of her empties find their way to a bottle bank, but not all. Nor are her out-of-date colour supplements instantly pulped.

But Atfield, a designer, who has recently completed a bar at Westminster University, is hardly slacking in the war against waste. Since leaving college, Atfield has scouted around for assorted leftovers to make new things.

Her studio is a storehouse of possibilities: cut and stacked cardboard cartons have been turned into shelving units and piles of riveted felt lagging converted into an armchair and a foot-stool; chair frames, usually hidden under layers of upholstery, are left naked with the addition of mottled plastic seats; bottles filled with wax have become candle-holders; and pages from glossy magazines are dye-cut and folded into full-colour envelopes, a 'picture post' for the Nineties.

At a Crafts Council exhibition earlier this year, Atfield's furniture constructed from recycled plastic waste was spotted by Colin Williamson, chairman of the British Plastics Federation's Recycling Council. He recognised the furniture's photogenic potential for grabbing attention and furthering the cause. Atfield and Williamson's subsequent partnership has flourished into Made of Waste, an agency that sources, distributes and promotes recycled materials to the design and architecture professions.

Exploiting a pop sensibility, Made of Waste is working hard to blow away the rough- hewn, hair-shirt image of recycled materials. Instead of hiding the origins of recycled plastics by dying them a uniform dull brown, Atfield and Williamson aim to celebrate the mongrel characteristics by turning glitches and chance colourations into aesthetic, marketable virtues.

Atfield first came across recycled plastic sheeting while studying furniture design at the Royal College of Art. A friend found an inch- square sample at a trade fair in New York. The multi-coloured fragment was made from discarded polyethylene bottles, chipped, melted and flattened into sheeting.

Atfield contacted furniture manufacturers Yemm and Hart in Missouri, who had developed and distributed the plastic, and imported a range of sample sheets in different thicknesses. Tests proved it to be as strong, flexible and as easy to work with as the most homogenous timber substitute. It could also be moulded into stacking chairs, mugs, telephones, anything that plastic is already used for. The only problem being that one simple moulding tool can cost about pounds 80,000.

Realising that her straightforward forms complemented the busy surface of the plastic, Atfield made a simple chair, showing off its riveted construction unselfconscious of the head-turning appeal of its Jackson Pollock-style speckles. The surface does not need cosmetic treatment, paint, lacquer or sealant. It is cheap, practical and hard-wearing.

The next stage was to find a sympathetic local manufacturer prepared to use its presses for recycling Britain's own abundant supply of empty shampoo and bleach containers. Britain lags behind other European countries in the organisation and recycling of plastic waste, although efforts are being made. Recoup, for example, a non-profit-making organisation established four years ago with donations from firms using plastic packaging, aims to educate and fund all sectors of the community in efforts to recycle plastic. Recoup lobbies manufacturers to reduce the number of components and materials in any one piece of packaging and to be more sparing with labels and adhesives.

Because of Recoup's efforts, cleaner, better sorted plastic is converted into more vivid-coloured sheeting with fewer flaws. As a result, Made of Waste's products literally outshine the original American version.

Atfield's input into Recoup's efforts is to make a new wave of creative furniture, interior design - and ultimately architecture - out of a matter-of-fact and pragmatic campaign to make more effective and ecological use of waste plastic.

Atfield would like to see more architects and designers substituting recycled plastic sheeting for the wood, plywood, chipboard and medium density fibreboard (mdf) they normally specify. Tables, shelves, doors, counter tops and partitions could become kaleidoscopes of responsible colour. Although at present more expensive than all-purpose mdf, bulk manufacturing will eventually bring down the price of recycled plastic sheeting.

Atfield's designs have been the best advertisement for these wider possibilities. Commissions to furnish student bars at the University of Westminster and Central Saint Martin's College of Art have led to a collaboration with interior designer Ben Kelly for a children's corner at the Science Museum. Moving from furniture to interiors, Atfield contemplates recycling architecture itself. 'Why not salvage whole rooms from demolished buildings and collage them back together to create buildings with new functions?'

Atfield may be a keen skip- hunter, but her designs are far from grungy. Her mix of clean lines, DIY simplicity and comic-book colours begs to be mass-produced.

(Photograph omitted)

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