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A Factory Where 'Dead Plastics' Are Reborn as Contemporary Furniture

Urbanist arrived at PLASTICPeople’s factory on a Friday afternoon after a long-winded ride on National Highway 1A. The sides of the road we took there were casually strewn with unpruned bushes, deposits of rocks and, expectedly, a heinous amount of trash, a fitting premonition of what we were about to witness.

The story of plastic in Vietnam is one of ugly paradoxes. The country consistently ranks as one of the world’s top plastic polluters, but few meaningful and large-scale efforts have been made to curb the source of the issue. Just last year, Vietnamese people consumed nearly 3.9 million tons of plastic, of which more than 2.62 million tons were thrown away, according to a report by IFC.

Plastic waste that isn't collected, or doesn’t qualify for collection, is often resigned to “dead plastic” status, which means that it will be turned away by recycling plants, get buried in a landfill for hundreds of years or, worse yet, drift into the environment and endanger an entire ecosystem.

Thus enters PLASTICPeople, a social enterprise and initiative that was founded as a response to the increasingly pressing matter. Three years ago, Nestor Catalan, the organization’s first founder, left his white-collar job in the advertising industry to travel the world, hoping to make a positive impact on society with his passion-driven mindset. On his stop in Vietnam, this aspiration gradually began to take shape as he became aware of the country’s struggle with plastic consumption and pollution.

As luck would have it, when Catalan began his quest to address the gap that exhausted local recycling plants left, he was joined by a partner and eventual co-founder, Nano Morante, whom he met through a group of mutual friends. Having lived in different countries and worked in a myriad professions, Morante is an enigmatic individual with a larger-than-life personality, but most importantly, he shares Catalan’s devout concern and vision for the environment.

Together, the duo embarked on research to find a more efficient recycling process from the limited resources at hand. Starting with only two pieces of machinery, a melter and an extruder parked in the lab of an international school, Catalan and Morante made their first creations from laminated plastics.

Discarded shopping bags and milk boxes were transformed into marble-like materials which, according to the founders, left them so proud that they ran around to tell everyone about what they had pulled off, and what it could potentially mean.

As more viable products stacked up, the two entrepreneurs decided to take the plunge and upgrade their makeshift laboratory into a real factory and company, which they named PLASTICPeople to represent their outlook and mission: The way we use plastics has created a problem for the environment, but how we deal with them after can be part of the solution.

The raw materials used by PLASTICPeople’s factory come entirely from post-consumer and production waste, which is supplied from numerous sources like traditional scrap collectors, or sent in by schools, companies and anyone who is interested in making a contribution.

But instead of just dealing with commonly recyclable polymers such as PET and HDPE, the team tackles a bigger challenge by taking in all plastic grades, including “processing nightmares” like straws, snack wraps, lunch boxes, and even excess packaging donated by manufacturers. PLASTICPeople’s operation also excels in its ability to create products that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also economical and functional for household and industrial use.

Once it has been sorted, grinded and remolded, plastic waste can come out of PLASTICPeople's factory in the form of anything. This can range from furniture with contemporary and minimalist designs, building parts like roofs and poles, to everyday items like funky-shaped coasters. Customers can also purchase pre-made panels should they wish to work on their own recycled goods. PLASTICPeople's portfolio features collaborations with prominent brands like Wink Hotels, Marou Chocolate and Rice Creative, and one can expect to catch PLASTICPeople’s chairs or disposal bins when visiting these establishments.

Stools created for Rice Creative. Photo: PLASTICPeople.

The project that caused the team the most headache is also the one that makes them most proud, says Morante humorously as he recalls PLASTICPeople’s collaboration with Pizza 4P's Da Nang for furniture:

“The client was opening up a new restaurant, so they had high hopes about our products both in terms of look and function. We had to put together structures weighing up to 340kg, and assemble hundreds of different pieces. Unfortunately, some of our calculations were inaccurate, which caused pieces to be too short or too long and required massive adjustment. There were days when we had to work until 3 a.m., and when the delivery trucks came to pick stuff up, we were so behind that it took eight hours for them to leave.”

The quality and the sustainability of the designs, though, were more than enough to offset production delays, and the team was able to get the seal of approval from the restaurateur. PLASTICPeople would go on to conquer another ambitious project for 4P's first Cambodian location, which made use of a whopping three tons of recycled plastic for the interior and decor.

PLASTICPeople’s methods have not been without criticism, as skeptics allege that efficient recycling will encourage certain individuals to use plastic more indiscriminately. But both Catalan and Morant beg to differ, as they believe that “the presence of plastic is almost inevitable in today's linear economy,” and whether PLASTICPeople exists or not, the amount of plastic can never truly be reduced to zero.

"That’s why we have to work on different fronts. On the one hand, we have to continue recycling plastic waste into useful products. On the other hand, we also have to organize workshops with communities and educational institutions to help people become more aware of their plastic consumption, so that they can eventually consume less," says Morante.

From the outside, PLASTICPeople's factory looks almost mundane, even somewhat boring, compared to what they create. Yet inside, a unique and restorative process is taking place. If you ever have the opportunity to visit this place, you will be met at the front gate by a literal mountain of garbage, not much different from the ones we often see out on the roads.

But with a little help from the kind and creative hands of sustainability, the plastics of all shapes, sizes and colors here are neatly arranged, cleaned and sorted, ready to be given new lives as beautiful and meaningful creations slotted in the space of diners, workplaces and comfy homes.

Nestor Catalan (left) and Nano Morante (right) with the team at PLASTICPeople.

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