Presto Change-O

Richard Liddle transforms recyclables into designer furniture before your eyes

By David Sokol

At a recent British design festival, attendees saw something that usually only takes place behind closed doors. Visitors flocked to the city Newcastle Upon Tyne’s Dott07 festival to watch Richard Liddle and members of his company Cohda transform HPDE plastic packaging into avant-garde furniture like chairs and pendant lights. Although Liddle’s unprecedented method—a process he calls Uncooled Recycled Extrude (URE)—might appear to be nothing more than a neat trick, curiosity seekers were witnessing an alternative to traditional recycling that is poised to take off.

Liddle, who turns 30 next month, was inspired to create furniture from recycled materials after learning one sad fact about his fellow countrymen: By and large, Brits don’t recycle their plastic. Barely one-tenth of consumed HPDE actually gets the chance of a second life, meaning that more than 200,000 metric tons of the stuff is shipped to landfills each year, or burned.

We are getting more accustomed to recycling plastics as public pressure builds, but the infrastructure for the sorting, transporting, and recycling of the waste is a massive structure to implement,” Liddle says. He also points out that most plastics recycling is outsourced to China for far cheaper sorting costs.

Liddle first researched URE while studying product design at the Royal College of Art (hence the name Cohda—it’s the opposite of “ad hoc”). The process not only combats recycling inefficiency in a way that could spark local economies, but also provides an alternative to the traditional ineffective system for recycling. The export of waste to China aside, the process involves truck collection of recyclables, sorting and melting them, and then distributing the born-again materials and sheeting to manufacturers.

To obtain his raw materials, Liddle prefers to gather HPDE products at live events like Dott07. “They allow us to collect larger amounts of waste material, and it cuts down on additional transport when the public brings along their waste,” he explains. Cohda also gets supplies from coffee shops, cafes, and other businesses that are overloaded with HPDE trash. “Detergent, milk, and food packaging are our main focus, as they’re the most problematic in the UK, accounting for 50 percent of the waste plastic problem,” Liddle says.

As Cohda’s web videos show, the URE process works like this: A spreading machine chops that bounty into small flakes, which is then heated to a molten state by another machine. The remains are extruded into long, Play-Doh–like bands, and draped onto molds to form furniture. A chair requires approximately 17 pounds of waste (or 266 liter-size plastic bottles). Compared to making a product from virgin plastic, the recycled-plastic chair yields energy savings equivalent to running a 60-watt light bulb for 1,600 hours.

The first two fruits of Liddle’s labor are the RD4 chair and Geo Light. The “RD” stands for “roughly drawn”—a shorthand way to describe the URE design vocabulary. “The entire form is based around limiting production processes, materials, and fixings,” Liddle says of URE’s Spiderman-was-here look. Although the RD4 and Geo Light are not flat-pack, Liddle has refined his method so that Cohda products stack, which reduces the cost and emissions of international shipping.

Liddle’s URE demonstration and furniture exhibition at Dott07 yielded some very positive feedback. Design Event festival director Karen Stone says that Cohda was one of the highlights in the collection of events. “For the public to be able to get involved and bring their plastic along is a very creative way of communicating sustainability to people,” she says.

Cohda is in discussions with British and American venues concerning additional live events, and Liddle has been commissioned by the renowned British designer Tom Dixon to produce a limited-edition series for Dixon’s Fresh Fat collection.

But perhaps URE's future is most promising in light of Liddle's creativity. The designer says that possible applications of the process are practically limitless. And while he recently designed another version of the RD4 with more clearly articulated legs, the array of new furniture and other products he has in mind for the future is a secret for now.


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