Smile Plastics is a materials design and manufacturing house creating hand-crafted, supersized panels for retail, architecture, interiors, and product design – from waste. Based in the UK, they describe themselves as a ‘micro-factory’ making sustainable materials from waste plastics collected from a variety of post-consumer and post-industrial sources. The company has a long history of plastic recycling, but was established in its current form in 2015 by Adam Fairweather and Rosalie McMillan. We spoke to Rosalie to find out more…
Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education, and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design, and sustainability.
Adam has been a designer since his childhood in mid-Wales, when he would make things from the natural materials he found around him, whereas I came to it later, having first trained as a psychologist at UCL and Goldsmiths. Adam studied Industrial Design at Brighton University and started focusing on creating products and materials that were made from waste soon after he graduated in 2005, while I turned to design after initially starting my career in business and management. I set up a business designing jewelry from recycled and Fairtrade materials, including coffee grounds, which Adam was also exploring in his material-design practice, creating wide-ranging circular solutions for coffee waste and plastics. We saw the synergy between what we ourselves were doing and Colin Williamson and Jane Atfield’s dormant Smile Plastics company. With their blessing, we were able to revive the business and relaunch it at the London Design Festival in 2015.
How would you describe your product?
We transform would-be waste into 100% recycled, 100% recyclable panels for use in commercial interiors. We have chosen to tell a material’s story through its surface. The panels in our Classics collection and custom pieces literally wear their lifecycle on their sleeve. This means celebrating every unique detail, whether it’s the glimmer of a yogurt pot foil or the monochromatic flash of a barcode, it’s all a visual reminder of how plastic continues to play a part in responsible material selection now and into the future. Our latest material, Heron, repurposes would-be discarded white goods – the unique color palette of which translates aesthetically into layered, feathery soft grey tones, a smattering of yellow hues, warm ochre flecks, black, and blizzard white.
What inspired this product?
The spark that ignited the Smile Plastics of today was the desire to create the most beautiful, circular plastics in the world. In the process of doing this, we have worked to challenge peoples’ perceptions about ‘waste’ and the system that creates it. Heron is a great example of this in practice. A humble material – the kitchen fixtures we use every day – has been elevated from waste to wonder. Its material makeup is celebrated through remnants of its previous life being visible on its surface. And this provides a subtle and creative nod to the part it plays in the circular lifecycle that our built environment’s future crucially relies on.
What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select those particular materials and how do you source them?
We’ve worked with a range of materials, but our real passion is for plastics. We source post-industrial, commercial and single-use consumer plastics – often from food and medical packaging. Plastics such as these are typically low value for the waste-management industry and may end up in landfill or incineration plants. However, through design, we flip the value category on its head, creating high-value materials that people want to keep around. Adam always likens our approach to that of a whisky blender, selecting individual spirits to create the product they want. I think that’s a good comparison; our model is a lot like a craft distiller or blender – a ‘micro-factory’ system working with local supply chains to source our ingredients/materials. For Heron, the materials used are white goods from the kitchen manufacturing industry.
When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?
Both of us have worked with waste for most of our careers in design – Adam in particular had spent a decade developing circular-design solutions for waste, before we re-established Smile Plastics in 2015 (it was originally set-up in the 1990s). We began focusing on new technology and industrial ecosystems, evolving the design function and growing Smiles’ product range.
What processes do the materials have to undergo to become the finished product?
Our process is based on craftsmanship and high-quality engineering. Whether it’s the sourcing and sorting of raw materials or the manufacturing of panels and finished products, everything is handled with care and much of what we do is by hand. To keep our carbon footprint low, Smile Plastics equipment uses a fraction of the energy that traditional plastics processing machinery uses – and we’re constantly improving too. We also try to source our supplies as close as possible to our micro-factory in South Wales. We keep the processing of the materials as low-intensity as possible. Not only do we have a lower carbon footprint, the plastic compounds also don’t become denatured. This allows us to repurpose them over and over again.
What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?
Our materials are designed to last, but at the end of their life, they can be recycled repeatedly both through local recyclers, as well as through our buy-back schemes, so that the plastics are constantly regenerated. We can take back offcuts plus any end-of-life Smile Plastics materials. We re-work them into new panels, closing the loop and ensuring the plastics continue to support a true full-circle ecosystem.
How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?
The first time that I saw Adam’s original coffee-panel material made from recycled coffee waste and plastics I felt a sense of wonder and joy. I am hugely excited about unleashing the potential of waste materials in their transformation into characterful decorative surfaces and look forward to launching new products in 2023 that can spark joy in others.
How have people reacted to this project?
We’ve had a fantastic reaction to our new Heron material so far, with lots of interest for use in commercial schemes, including a development in the heart of London that serves as a landmark project for energy-positive, zero-waste housing. The subtle color palette and textural effect of the material makes it incredibly versatile for a range of different environments, ranging from retail to hospitality.
How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?
We’re seeing a huge shift in the way customers are approaching us about custom projects. Whereas before, aesthetic details such as color palettes and patterning were guided by client briefs, now, we’re seeing a lot more openness in being led by the attributes of the waste that’s available. This is reassuring as it shows that, just as we do with the natural world, we are willing to work with what’s available instead of contributing to yet more landfill.
What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?
The future for waste as a raw material is extremely bright! We’ve recently collaborated with some fantastic brands such as MONC eyewear – a sustainably conscious retail concept that’s garnering a lot of attention in the industry awards – to produce materials that are as functional as they are beautiful, and all from waste. And this is but one of many projects that has prioritized the use of repurposed waste or naturally abundant materials in its design. Elsewhere, we’re seeing larger manufacturers launch buy-back schemes to ensure potential waste is captured and reused before it enters unhealthy streams. Here at Smile Plastics, a sustained increase in demand has led to us securing larger factory premises to allow us to offer more scale and choice for our customers from 2023 onwards. Watch this space!