Cooking Furniture


      Production often occurs in a linear fashion. A material may be found, purchased, distilled, added to, or repurposed. The material is then shaped through various processes into a specific product to fulfill a specific role. The product is sent out into the world to fulfill that role and then it is discarded of.
    In recent years we have seen an increased emphasis on the “end” of this perceived linear life of products. Cell phone manufacturers for example create cell phones with parts that are so expensive to create that their customer may as well buy an entirely new phone when a part breaks. Tech companies create products without replaceable batteries, so that an entirely product must be purchased. Disposable cameras are distributed with the intention to be thrown away. Fast fashion brands like Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo, Zara and American Apparel are only a few examples of companies that create garments quickly and cheaply so that they can adapt to trends. These garments are more affordable, but they quickly wear down and are often discarded of in anticipation of the next trend. Disposable straws, disposable cups, disposable packaging etc. are not intended to last forever so they are marked “single-use” and are disposed of after just one use. However these objects tend only to be disposable to the user, and while convenient and efficient from the point of view of the consumer, when you account for their entire lifecycle they are anything but disposable. 
    These objects are the result of the practice of designing or constructing products with a limited useful life, so that they quickly become obsolete and need to be replaced. This practice is called planned obsolescence.
    Obsolescence however does not imply decomposition or degradation. Most of the objects that are labeled disposable tend to be made from plastic. Plastic is a fossil fuel based synthetic polymer. This means that it is incredibly difficult to break down naturally, and so plastic that ends up in landfills and in oceans tends to remain intact on the earth for hundreds of years. While plastic is usually able to be recycled, only about 9% is. 
   Plastic degrades every time it is recycled, so it generally can only be recycled for large scale manufacturing one time.  Additionally it is often more expensive, sometimes more energy intensive, and usually it takes more work to recycle plastic than it does to throw it into landfills or to incinerate it. Plastic recycling tends to be shipped from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia to poorer nations. In the US plastic recycling is collected and managed by private companies that tend to ship plastic recycling to countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal, that offering cheap labor and limited environmental regulation (China recently stopped handling the US’s plastic waste). Plastic that is not recycled in these countries is often piled in landfills or incinerated. Producing and incinerating plastic releases various toxic compounds and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere including CO2, dioxins, phthalates, volatile organic compounds, methanol, and styrene.
   The first completely synthetic plastic was created in 1907 as an alternative to a natural resin. The popularity of this material was linked to the rapidly growing electrical industry in the United States. Because plastics served as an alternative to animal-based materials, they were actually considered a saviour for animals at this early stage.
    Synthetic polymers (plastics) are generally made up of long chains of carbon based molecules, that are produced by petroleum and fossil fuels. These chains tend to be much longer than ones found in nature. Their size and shape allows them to be strong, lightweight and malleable. These characteristics give plastic its unique and beloved qualities, but they also make it difficult to break down plastic.
   For many of the things that plastic is used for in our current society, we don’t actually want it to decompose. For example chairs, tables, houses etc. need to be strong and to last. Food wrappers need to be strong enough to hold the food and they need to be sanitary and secure enough that they do not mold or decompose. The earth has created natural materials, and has evolved processes to cycle those materials.
Many of these cycles eventually lead to microbial decomposition. Microbes have evolved to break down natural materials. Microbes have not evolved to break down plastic that is constructed by humans.
    When plastic bags were first introduced to the public, most consumers preferred paper. However, the plastic industry is a conglomerate of Big Oil, Big Soda and Big Tobacco with all of their combined lobbying power. And they wanted plastic to sell. As long as plastic is “disposable” consumers will continue to buy it and throw it away, meaning that oil companies would make an exponential profit as plastic gains popularity and they continue to sell virgin oil. Therefore any plastic recycling by nature endangers their profit.
    In 1973 a report was sent to top oil executives that said “recycling plastic is nearly impossible. There is no recovery for obsolete products. Recycling is costly, sorting it is infeasible. Plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it”. In large quantities recycling is expensive, time consuming and chemically problematic. It is cheaper and easier to make plastic out of new oil.
   Big Oil does have an incentive to make recycling work. In the 1970’s consumers began to notice plastic trash piling up, deteriorating the image of plastic. This coincided with the beginning of the environmental movement. In order to keep consumers interested in plastic, the Plastic industry chose to advertise their way out of it to maintain the image of “disposable plastic.”
These advertisements focussed on environmentalism and recycling. Nonprofit organizations like Keep America Beautiful began running ads about waste and recycling. KAB itself was founded by a group of businessmen from the beverage and packaging industries. Other nonprofit groups took money from Big Oil to run ads about recycling. KAB continues to advertise about throwing away garbage, and recycling plastic in order to keep America pristine and waste-free.
    This tactic was used to convince the public that the build up of plastic waste was their fault, and that it could be solved by their action. These ads began running around 1973. In 1973 oil companies knew that recycling didn’t work. These advertisements were never intended to result in recycling. Rather they were intended to get waste off of American soil, so that Americans would keep buying disposable goods without concern for its afterlife. Plastic recycling for the most part is picked up by private companies that sort it and sell it overseas where it is occasionally repurposed or recycled, but is most often illegally burned, dumped in the ocean or put in a landfill.
    Today as public interest moves away from fuel, oil companies are turning to petrochemicals (chemicals derived from petroleum and natural gas that include synthetic polymers). From 2020 to 2040, BP expects plastics to represent 95% of the net growth in demand for oil.
    When COVID-19 shut down the US, oil and gas prices plummeted and the oil companies increased lobbying for plastic, arguing that states banning of plastic bags was a public health concern. There is no conclusive evidence that the virus spreads more quickly on reusable bags than on plastic ones. Still their lobbying resulted in grocery stores reimplementing plastic bags and banning reusable ones. 500 million additional plastic bags handed out per month in California alone since the pandemic.
    Plastic that does not get repurposed, incinerated, or burried in landfills tends to end up in the ocean due to runoff, direct aquatic pollution, intentional or accidental dumping, or sewage paths. These plastics tend to be broken up or partially degraded into small pieces called microplastics which can easily be ingested by aquatic animals. This can further impact ecosystems through bioaccumulation and biomagnification.
    While it is important to continue to repurpose existing plastic and to continue researching ways that plastic can be broken down, the health of these ecosystems depends on a largescale effort to move away from the use of plastic altogether where ever possible.


  During the fall semester of 2020 I began researching plastic pollution. My intention was to propose ways to recycle plastic for design; however as I continued my research I grew increasingly frustrated with the lobbying power of oil companies, health disparities and unequal impact of climate change as a result of pollution and fossil fuel emissions, our global failure in regards to recycling, and the impact of micro plastics on the environment. I felt that there was an opportunity and a need to try not only to treat the symptoms of petroleum based plastic, but also to find alternatives to plastic so we can stop excessive production of the material in the first place.
    We consider plastic goods to be disposable, but they can take approximately 450 years to decompose. If we design products that are ephemeral by nature through the use of biopolymers, we can completely alter the way we create, use and perceive products. We can design more sustainably if we are mindful of the energy and water consumption that the production of biopolymers uses, we can reduce waste production if we are mindful of waste management when generating biopolymers and we can begin to “design out” some of the problems that accompany synthetic polymers such as microplastics and toxins.
    However, biomaterial research is still in early development. We do not know enough about their scalability, durability and ultimate cost to know definitively that they will provide solutions to the problems that plastic has created which makes current research critical.
    For my own research I began collecting and saving my own waste products such as cardboard, egg shells, vegetable peelings, and sawdust while simultaneously researching and testing common bioplastic recipes. At the start of the semester I moved into a new apartment, and wanted to create my own furniture by combining biopolymers and food waste. I believe this topic is very relevant currently, as many people are locked down at home and are isolated, and consequently are cooking more and redecorating. Reenvisioning food waste as a building material is an exciting proposal. As I am creating these materials at home and I am attempting to only use biodegradable materials in my production, I plan to use my research as a template for other designers and creators to build products and prototypes at home, while avoiding the excessive amounts of waste materials that result from prototyping. Developing these products and ideas in one's own home reduces the carbon footprint of the individual as they are not commuting to a design space. 
    In my own home I have created 97 material samples and four functional, 1/2 scale pieces of furniture. The video and samples presented here document my process, however as I continue to research and experiment I intend to build an extensive research library which will include material recipes for students and designers to use at home. 


Material Samples 

Leah Hughes 



︎ @leah_aly