This Transforming Furniture Is Made From Old Electronics and Plastic Waste
Jed Oelbaum — New and Improved
Sustainable home furnishings company Pentatonic is nothing if not ambitious. “We try to be humble,” says Jamie Hall, co-founder of Pentatonic, by phone. “But within the company, our vision is to one day lead the world into the circular economy.” Heading the charge into a circular system in which waste is eliminated and materials are reused endlessly might sound like a grandiose goal for a year-old recycled furniture business. But if they don’t become a leader in sustainable design, it won’t be for lack of trying—Hall’s goal doesn’t seem so wild when you consider the momentum behind the London-based company’s efforts over just the last month.
After raising £4.3 million ($5.8 million U.S.), Pentatonic recently released their first collection of chairs, tables, and home accessories, which they showcased as part of last month’s London Design Festival. In recent weeks, the company also announced a flurry of big-name partnerships to make a slew of new products from waste generated by corporations like Starbucks and Eileen Fisher. And when I speak with Hall, he’s in a cab on his way to Pentatonic’s pop-up store, based in a former East London synagogue, where the company will show off their newest projects, aiming to bring a sense of unified purpose to their wide-ranging plans.
“Our picture wasn't just about ‘oh let's make some recycled furniture, let's try to do a good thing,’” says Hall. “It was always a macro vision—how do we really create a universe where we only use what's already in the system?”
Accordingly, Pentatonic’s new furniture line is made from trash like old cups and bottles, damaged clothing and fabric scraps, and e-waste like smartphone screens. The company uses no screws or glues, and each component consists of only a single material—the seats on their chairs, for example, are all made of PET plastic spun into different fibers and felts—making the parts easy to break down and recycle over and over again. And if you damage or tire of a particular piece, Pentatonic will buy it back, to be reinstituted into yet another generation of furniture.
“We can't carry on like this,” Hall says. “We are using and consuming and wasting too much. We're way past the point of no return now. But we can consume differently and use materials differently and stem the flow of these massive piles of waste all over the world.”
He explains that conventional consumer products are often made with hybrid materials, which can be hard to separate out for reuse. “That's why so much furniture doesn't get recycled and ends up wasted,” he tells me. (The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2011 that about 10 million tons of furniture was sent to U.S. landfills annually.)
The furniture business “is a relatively small industry that's extremely fragmented,” Susan Inglis, Executive Director of the North Carolina-based industry group Sustainable Furnishings Council, tells me over the phone. Inglis’ organization helps consumers find environmentally friendly furniture, and works with more than 400 furnishings companies—from materials manufacturers to retailers to interior design firms—to make their products more sustainable.
“There are a lot of small businesses involved and there are very complex supply chains,” Inglis continues, explaining that this leads to a particularly high toll in fossil fuel usage, as materials and furniture pieces are shipped around the globe.
She says that by using recycled materials, companies like Pentatonic avoid the need for common, problematic furniture-industry mainstays—like newly cut lumber, which can contribute to deforestation and more CO2 emissions, or cotton, which is still often produced under unethical labor conditions.
Inglis says she finds Pentatonic’s work exciting. Even compared to other companies using recycled and reclaimed elements, [Pentatonic] is taking a “particularly innovative approach to materials, specifically for furniture,” she says.
One of Pentatonic’s innovations is finding new uses for e-waste—aka scrapped smartphones, computers, televisions, and other electronics—which Hall describes as a “terrifyingly abundant resource of trash.” These devices, he says, “become redundant way before their production volume has been remotely depleted,” and are often difficult to safely break down and recycle. In 2014, more than 40 million metric tons of e-waste was generated worldwide, according to the U.N., accounting for more than $18 billion in potentially reusable resources. Hall says he’s working with a number of small waste management firms, which safely separate and recommodify niche, hard-to-process waste streams (like discarded electronics) into new materials for Pentatonic, like the smartphone-screen glass the company uses to make dishware.
But reusing materials is only one part of Pentatonic’s sustainability strategy; like Hall says, the company set out to build a “universe,” a lofty goal that sets up their inaugural collection as just step one in a modular, component-based system they call Pentatonic Airtool. Each piece consists of interchangeable parts that can be combined with other items from the company to create new designs and combinations, or integrated into furniture pieces that consumers already have at home.
By making everything component-based, explains Hall, less storage is needed to warehouse Pentatonic’s inventory, fewer items will need to be shipped long distances, and overall, less packaging is used. On the consumer side, customers can just buy what they need, or find new uses for items they’d have otherwise tossed. “We're already seeing people buying just the leg forms for our tables, and then putting on their own [table] tops,” says Hall. If you’ve bought a chair base from the company, for instance, you can just change out the seat when you want to achieve a new look or feel.
Hall hopes that over time, this system will encourage Pentatonic’s customers to adapt what they already have to suit emerging needs, rather than buying new stuff.
“You'll see chairs that can form a table or a sofa, or a table that can become a bed, or a chair that can become a crib,” he says.
Beyond boutique recyclers and the company’s modular offerings, Hall seems to have a real respect for the power of working at scale—before Pentatonic, he worked for large, global brands like Nike and Ben Sherman. And while the sleek, adaptable Airtool system is design-blog catnip, it’s still, as Hall puts it, “quite technical” and for now relatively expensive; he and his co-founder Johann Boedecker realized they had to reach beyond their own signature line of products to achieve the kind of ambitious impact and circular-economy leadership they had in mind. That’s why they began looking for partnerships with companies whose broad reach and size would allow Pentatonic to more seriously tilt the waste-stream scales.
“If we’re working with someone like Starbucks to rethink the interiors of their stores, you're talking major impact, that's a large trash stream that's being intercepted and repurposed for new things,” says Hall.
“Working with Pentatonic is very exciting for us,” Ad de Hond, Vice President of Design for Starbucks Europe, Middle East, and Africa writes by email. “The collaboration showcases how we can give post-consumer waste a second life in our stores.”
For Pentatonic’s team-up with Starbucks, the design firm is capturing garbage generated at café locations across the U.K. to create furniture, décor, and hardware for the coffee giant. Cups from drained venti lattes and discarded doppio macchiatos will be turned into new tabletops and countertops; plastic from water bottles, food wrappers, and industrial packaging will be used to recreate a recycled version of Starbucks’ ubiquitous “bean chair,” a longtime brand staple. De Hond writes that for the bean chair redesign, which will furnish up to 250 Starbucks stores across Europe with 1,000 chars, “upholstery has been carefully woven on precision looms using recycled PET yarns with hand-finished details.”
Hall also notes they’re harvesting polystyrene and propylene from plastic trash like Starbucks coffee cup lids. “We're making tiles out of them, which we’re using in some Starbucks stores, and in a couple of our other projects.”
At the London Design Festival last month, Pentatonic exhibited one of those projects—a mobile recycling unit called Trashpresso, which incorporates materials made from Starbucks-derived garbage. This mobile contraption, which looks like a concert stage and a lunar lander had a solar-powered baby, is meant to process and repurpose waste in off-grid locations with pollution problems. Once deployed to a cleanup area, the portable facility can digest a variety of garbage to produce more tiles that can then be used to make new things locally.
At the pop-up store (which runs until October 12) visitors can also check out a line of “Rothko-style” rugs made with waste from clothing retailer Eileen Fisher, and the first-ever pop-up Starbucks bar—yes, that’s a pop-up within a pop-up—made entirely from the coffee business’s own trash.
Though Pentatonic’s Airtool system components are currently only available for purchase at the pop-up store and through their site, Hall says the company intends to expand distribution. He says one important step in their long-term goal of reaching more people will be making the furniture less pricey. (Right now, a full chair will set you back about $273 U.S. and a table set costs more than $1000.) The firm wants to prove that “sustainability can be democratic, it can be affordable,” says Hall.
For now, the company is surfing a wave of media attention from their Starbucks partnership and Design Festival showings. However, Hall says it’s important for Pentatonic to pace its progress. He tells me last month’s spike in activity is just the tip of the iceberg; now, he fears they might have to actually slow down the rollout of planned projects, so as not to overwhelm tuned-in consumers and green-minded design fans. Still, Pentatonic better not slow down too much; there’s still a long way to go before we’re ushering in the kind of waste-free world Hall and company envision.