Sustainable Furniture as a Part of Circular Economy

Marcin Bahrij
 by Marcin Bahrij
Sustainable Furniture as a Part of Circular Economy

Over the past decades, the consumption of furniture has significantly increased. Changing fashion and lowering production costs made it much easier to sell cheap seasonal products. Growing demand and short product life cycles have even further aggravated the problem of waste.

The concept of Circular Economy can be a potential solution to the waste problem at its source. A circular economy is "a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible." Most often, the circular economy is confused with the recycling process, which is only the last stage that we might call "end of the life cycle". In fact, stopping growing consumption is a major factor in reducing the amount of waste.

In our current linear economy model, natural resources are turned into products, which are ultimately destined to become waste because of the way they have been designed and manufactured. This process is often summarized by "take, make, waste". It's the consequences of decisions made at the design stage that determine around 80% of environmental impacts.

Linear Economy vs Circular Economy (source: Social enterprise guide)

One of the most honest ways to create sustainable furniture is to use Post-Industrial off cuts, reclaimed or found materials. Works of Piet Hein Eek can be a great example of implementing this kind of sustainable design in practice. Piet Hein Eek focuses on craftsmanship and respect for the material. His ecologically responsible approach to furniture is opposed to often wasteful mass production process. His furniture is produced in limited series, made of found or reclaimed materials. Piet focuses on the natural properties and the highlights beauty of each material, giving it a new life.

"A basic economic principle of modern society is that the less labor you use, the more money you save," he says. "But I thought I would turn that around, using the materials that people throw away and adding as much labor as possible to them. Ultimately, people notice all the attention that goes into making the pieces."

- Piet Hein Eek

Tegelkast nr. 18 (source: Piet Hein Eek)

This kind of furniture is one of the few examples of real upcycling in furniture. Upcycling, which is a form of recycling that focuses on transforming an unwanted item or material into a quality, visually improved and valued product. The environmental benefits of upcycling are huge as it reduces the number of waste that are discarded and taken to landfill every year, as well as reducing the need to produce more.

Recycling is recovery and reprocessing of waste materials for use in new products. Recycling reduces the loss of materials to landfill and saves energy, but it is not a perfect process. Recycling statistics for most common PET and HDPE plastics a still shockingly low. Half of the PET bottles sold is never collected for recycling, and only 7% of those bottles collected for recycling are turned into new bottles.

The New Raw, a research and design studio based in Rotterdam, founded in 2015 by architects Panos Sakkas and Foteini Setaki, is a prime example of how we can deal with plastic waste. Their values are the epitome of the quote "One person's trash is another's treasure". New Raw prints their furniture in 3D, entirely using recycled plastic filament. All their furniture is made without any virgin plastics, adhesives, lacquers or other finishes. Their entire process is 100% circular by transforming plastic waste into raw material for 3D printing. Initially, plastic waste is collected and sorted according to the type of plastic and its color. The plastic is then cleaned and shredded into a plastic flake, approximately 4-7mm in size. The last step is printing the monolith in 3D, layer-by-layer out of recycled plastic.

Ermis chair by New Raw (source: Dezeen)

Ermis chair by New Raw (source: Dezeen)

Ermis chair by New Raw (source: Dezeen)

Due to contamination, we lose part of the material with each life cycle, therefore we use recycling rate to measure efficiency of that process. The recycling rate is calculated as the proportional value (%) of waste recycled from the total waste generated. Even aluminum with highest recycling potential loses 10% with each recycling. Let's take an aluminum can for example, aluminum is usually in circulation for 3 months and that is only four years before it is all gone. For this reason, many companies are adding more virgin material with each new cycle, to obtain wastage and improved properties, which is not sustainable at all.

Unsorted ocean trash (source: Green Peace)

Many of the materials in modern society are "downcycled". It means that instead of making a new product with same qualities is rather reprocessed into products of lesser quality or value, which are not further recyclable and not possible to recycle at all.

What started as a notebook can be recycled into cardboard, toilet paper and so on. It is not as easy to reverse that process.

Large entities confuse us even more with Eco inventions like hybrids and composites. Let's have a take on the fashion industry. Polycotton, which is the mix of two primary materials, one from biological cycle and one from the industry. A hybrid that is not commonly recycled in industry. In 2017, Swedish scientists have invented the process to recycle polycotton blended textiles called Blend Re:wind. Unfortunately, this process won't become mainstream the years to come if we are not recycling natural materials such as cotton yet.

In the same manner, furniture tycoons are also jumping on the train called sustainability. IKEA understands long term trends like no one else, but not forgetting that it is World's largest furniture retailer. IKEA introduced Odger chair, the result of a three-year-long project exploring how a sustainable composite material could be used to create an affordable seat. It is made through a process of injection molding; using a mixture that is 70 percent, polypropylene and 30 percent wood chips. The wood chips all come from reclaimed wood, while polypropylene from recycled plastic.

Odger chair by IKEA (source: Dezeen)

With this process, IKEA managed to create a composite that is extremely difficult to recycle. It is a hybrid from two primary materials. These materials cannot be easily detached to get back to their original cycles with the same quality. IKEA streamlines the processes and redefines the amount of waste because it is good business to do so.

Sustainable furniture assures longevity, beauty and strength. Therefore, how any Low-cost, high-volume business model that encourages mass-consumption can ever be sustainable? Plastic is non-biodegradable substance and will never be sustainable. Many companies and the plastics industry have long promoted the idea that recycling is the best way to keep plastic out of the landfill, but more than 90% of all the plastic ever produced has not been recycled. Plastic is far more likely to end up in landfills than to be recycled. To be sustainable it takes more than just a shop for Eco furniture.

Renew, Repair and shop less.

Marcin Bahrij
by Marcin Bahrij
Marcin is a contemporary furniture designer that has experience working with clients spanning from high-end brands such as Restoration Hardware, Crate and Barrel, Bassett, Arhaus to cost-conscious brands such as IKEA. In 2021, he established his own furniture company.