Fusing disposable plastic with handwoven natural materials, the PET Lamp project weaves together eco-innovation and craftsmanship to reposition a waste material as a resource.
“Plastic is the starting point – it’s the brief.”
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón
Every second of the day, over 20,000 plastic drinks bottles are sold around the world. That’s a million every single minute and a staggering 480 billion over the course of a year – and these numbers are set to increase in the years to come. Most of these bottles are made from easily recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but less than half are currently collected and recycled. Many are thrown away, buried in landfill and washed down into the world’s oceans.
Changing our mindset on a global scale – seeing plastic as a valuable resource, not a waste material – is a crucial part of tackling the problem. Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón sees his PET Lamp project as just a small step in that direction. Starting with recycled plastic bottles as a source material, the project creates a blank canvas for craftspeople to work with – weaving local materials and styles into the cut plastic to create beautiful lampshades with an upcycled bottle at their heart. Parley sat down with Alvaro following his keynote talk at the recent MILL6 Foundation textile event in Hong Kong to learn more.
How did the PET Lamp project start?
The project started in Colombia when I attended an exhibition by an artist friend about plastic in the Amazon River. I’ve always been concerned with the use of plastic – especially single-use disposable items. It’s crazy to imagine that to bottle some water we are using a material that will last for centuries. The problem isn’t plastic, which if used correctly and appropriately is, after all, just a material like any other. It’s the fact we use it so irresponsibly, that’s what’s really worrying.
It’s a global problem, and a global project?
Yes – the problem is that it we throw plastic away in China, in Brazil, in Europe, etc. It all ends up in the middle of the ocean, where no one is responsible for it. We lose track of it, but it’s going to stay there for a long time. So the project is made from two global elements: the ubiquitous plastic bottle, which you can find everywhere, and local crafts.
Let’s talk about the first element: plastic.
Plastic is the starting point for PET Lamp – it’s the brief. It’s not about resolving the plastic problem, because the problem is way too big to resolve in this way. It’s about more about creating consciousness and creating a product that has a big storytelling capacity. You can tell the story and slowly make people aware.
The second element is craft – how did that come in?
We returned to Colombia, where torrential tropical rain washes plastic down into rivers and the sea. There’s no infrastructure for recycling, so we thought about reusing plastic – how to convert one object into another. The key idea was to transform that object not through industrial processes, but through craftsmanship. There is an incredible variety of traditions and techniques there. We realized we could draw on basket-making, which is one of the first crafts that humans developed and can be found all over the world.
The project is now active in Chile, Ethiopia, Colombia and Japan. How much awareness is there about the plastic problem?
In Ethiopia, plastic bottles are picked up and sold – they’re a valuable object. In Chile there is more infrastructure for recycling, so bottles are taken away and recycled. In Colombia they’re just thrown away. So in many places, the project is about encouraging people to see that there is value in these objects. Plastic is incredibly strong, it can be stripped and cut, it’s transparent, it’s colorful – it’s about rethinking something we see every day.
What have you learned from the project?
For us, it’s become an incredible way of discovering the world. Through textiles, we get to understand different cultures, different traditions, different languages and different ways of interacting with the landscape and using local materials. Craftspeople are the ones who best know their surroundings, the culture, their weather, their food – so we’ve spent a lot of time with them and it’s amazing how enriching it’s been for us.
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón is one of the many designers who has signed Parley’s AIR pledge and shares our vision of Avoiding, Intercepting and Redesigning to reduce marine plastic pollution. Make your own Parley AIR pledge here and for more on the PET Lamp project, see http://petlamp.org
Interview by Chris Hatherill