In 2006, Coca-Cola opened its new recycling plant in South Carolina, making T-shirts, polar fleece and carpet from recycled PET Coke bottles. But, wanting to create something iconic from the material that would send a message encouraging recycling, the company approached Paola Antonelli, senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who immediately suggested a collaboration with Emeco.
Emeco has always made aluminium chairs. The brand’s original chair, the 1006 or Navy chair, was commissioned by the Navy in the 1940s – a lightweight, non-corrosive, almost indestructible chair, estimated to last one hundred and fifty years. Since then, the chair has been taken up in both commercial and domestic settings, and Emeco has expanded its range to include pieces by several big-name designers. All of Emeco’s chairs are made of aluminium recycled from consumer waste, apart from one notable exception, Michael Young’s chair, which includes timber, but only because the ash trees used are being killed by a beetle and so are, in effect, waste anyway.
It is in Emeco’s DNA to create its chairs out of recycled material. “In the United States, 1.7 percent of all industrial produced-products lasted more than six months,” says Emeco CEO Gregg Buchbinder. “We’re trashing the planet. We’re taking virgin material and converting it into trash in less than six months. I want to do the opposite. I want to take trash and make it into something that lasts. That’s our goal.”
Once Coca-Cola and Emeco had found each other, it took four years of computer modelling, engineering, and designing special tooling to create the 111 Navy chair. Its form is identical to the Navy chair – down to the welder’s stamps on the back. But it was difficult to make the recycled PET strong, to make it lightweight, to create the piece as a monoblock – as one piece with no connections. “It’s not a material an average company would use, because it’s difficult,” explains Buchbinder.
But the results are spectacular. Coca-Cola has estimated it will have 2.7 trillion bottles in landfill in the next fifty years. Part of Emeco and Coca-Cola’s aim is to decrease that number, but part of it is also to change the way people think. And, if they can demonstrate to other companies and industrial designers that this material exists, and that it can and should be used, all the better.
Published online: 17 Dec 2011
Words: Penny Craswell
Artichoke, September 2011