In an effort to rejuvenate the world’s recycling system, Texas A&M professors are developing design strategies to produce 3D-printed outdoor furniture and playground equipment from entirely recycled plastics.
The 3D printing project — led by architecture professors Alejandro Borges and Weiling He, and mechanical engineering professor Terry Creasy — is one of the latest visions to be funded by T3: Texas A&M Triads for Transformation. Part of the President’s Excellence Fund, T3 is a multidisciplinary seed-grant program designed to support faculty-led projects that improve the community, state, nation and world.
With financial backing and an urgency for change, Borges, He and Creasy are bringing their architectural mentality to an environmentalist’s field.
“What we’re developing with the grant that we received from [T3] are strategies for the transformation of plastic,” Borges said. “We can — as architects — design and propose different ways of looking at the discarded materials and turn them into something beautiful, practical and useful.”
While the current state of the 3D designs for outdoor furniture and playground equipment are still conceptual, He said to expect functioning prototypes within the next year.
“In terms of the timeline, we’ll be working with stages: smaller tests, bigger prototyping and bigger scale production,” He said. “Our immediate goal would be this coming September to show something at the Austin trash makeover fashion show, and during that period of time we will increase the prototyping. Professor Borges also has an idea with Downtown Bryan, so maybe in the following summer we can do a interactive installation there.”
Borges’ commencement of this recycle and redesign project comes just two months after he received finalist honors at the 44th AIA Dallas Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition, the world’s oldest architectural design competition.
With his piece “Invited” Borges speculated about the outer limits and possibilities that architectural space can be pushed to, a sentiment he said he has also carried over into this latest project.
“There’s a lot of things that can be said in relation to what we investigate as architects,” Borges said. “We’re trying to use and interpret architectural concepts in different ways in relation to spatial ideas, like different concepts of space and movement, and the relationship of how space — in a way — generates emotion into the people that inhabit them.”
Borges said every piece of work constructed is an extension of who we are as people, and his latest project is meant to reflect that.
Deep in the heart of the Pacific Ocean looms the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The garbage patch consists of roughly 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that now cover an area double the size of the Lone Star state, and according to Borges and He, the toxic ocean mass was a long time coming.
“It is tragic, the amount of plastic thrown into oceans,” Borges said. “We are very worried about the fact that it seems like people are not really aware of how shocking and how important it is to address this problem.”
Borges said while efforts for environmental improvement have been made by national leaders, society continues to repeat past mistakes.
“The idea should be that we are so developed as a society that we don’t produce the contaminants of the oceans and nature,” Borges said. “The [United Nations] created a document urging different countries to start acting seriously toward changing the ways we produce waste, so we are aware of the problem, yet we keep producing plastic. The consumer’s way of living and this running commercial structure haven’t really changed, so we keep producing the same waste.”
Following her involvement in several art installations that also repurposed plastic, He said one of the more challenging aspects to manipulating the material is bridging the gap between artistry and practicality.
“People always say diamonds are forever, but I think plastic is forever,” He said. “Addressing this plastic waste is a way to address consumerism in our culture, but on the other hand, the architect’s designer point of view is to think about plastic as a material. Is there anyway we can transform recycled plastic — which is trash and of almost no value — into something that people appreciate?”
However, unlike the filtered aesthetic of art shows that will merely call attention to an issue, an architect must raise awareness and provide the solution, He said.
“A lot of artists also use recycled materials, but there is a big difference between architects reusing of plastics and artists,” He said. “Artists are making a statement, but architects are in between art and engineering. We’re trying to make something that will not only impact the public’s emotion, but that can also be reintegrated into their everyday lives. That’s why we chose the public space, because unless you can reintegrate a material into everybody’s life, it cannot be recycled.”
Borges and He said they have also discussed the possibility of utilizing A&M’s own recycling system or even partnering with the industry that produces plastic bottles.
“If we could partner with the industry and reintegrate the recycled material into the economy, maybe that’s the positive spin on recycling,” He said. “We cannot say trying to make profit is evil because this is how society is run. The economy is a very essential factor to push this forward, but the problem is we haven’t found a way to make recycling plastic and other materials a viable approach economically. If we could test this and get positive feedback, the impact would be even greater.”