In 2011 Liane Rossler and Sarah K began to experiment with different processes to manipulate the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. Discovering that they could manipulate the bags by wrapping them around a mould and blasting them with a heat gun, they would come to create a series of vases and bowls (and other homeware designs) that they would name Plastic Fantastic. Naming their practice ‘supercycling’, Rossler and King have stressed that their mode of transforming and recycling materials differentiates their practice from that of ‘upcycling’. “It’s not just taking a bent fork and turning it into a bangle,” says Rossler. Stating that they are seeking to move away from the ‘crafty’ feel of many upcycled designs, Rossler says:
[W]e wanted to make something you’d want, instead of something you’d want to throw out […] in fact we want to make what you might have thrown in the garbage look so beautiful and be so useful that you will now pay good money just to have it back—or take on some of our ideas and do it yourself.
Seeking to mobilise supercycling as a form of waste management and an alternative to throwaway modes of consumption, Rossler and King’s project is threefold. Firstly, they work with plastic waste in order to produce homewares for their Plastic Fantastic range. Secondly, they run workshops where they transfer their supercycling skills to the public as a means of generating DIY plastic homewares. Thirdly, they organize exhibitions and events and run a website representing similarly oriented designers—or supercyclers—from around the world as a means of advancing the design and supercycling phenomenon. The overall aim of Supercyclers is to advance both eco-sustainable design and consumption practices and to transform the public’s engagement with common urban waste. As the Supercycler’s website states:
[S]upercyclers are people who take things that are no longer being used and instead of throwing them into the great pacific garbage patch they make something beautiful, clever and useful,active immediately without sending the stuff to the processing plant […] We are Supercyclers and we hope you are too.
Visual/Aesthetic: Rossler and Sarah K’s Supercyclers project aims to transform consumer waste products such as single-use plastic bags into highly desirable objects. In doing so, they seek to illuminate different methods for creatively engaging and ‘supercycling’ consumer waste, while stressing its aesthetic (and market) potential.
Innovation/Risk (Technical) and Audience Engagement: As Rossler states, moulding is usually a complex process. For projects such as Plastic Fantastic, Rossler and Sarah K aimed to come up with a simple moulding method for transforming plastic bags into bowls, glasses and vases (and so on). In doing so, they aimed to produce methods simple enough for the general public to learn to produce their own supercycled plastic bag homeware objects.
Skills Acquisition: Rossler and Sarah K aimed to transfer their supercycling skills and knowledge to the public via workshops. They also post instructions on how to create Plastic Fantastic homewares on the Supercyclers website.
Waste Reduction and Management: In Rossler’s words, the aim of Supercyclers is “to tackle issues like the plastic mess we’ve made in our oceans by changing perceptions about waste and what we do with it.” Moreover, the aqua tones of the Plastic Fantastic range, argue Sarah K and Rossler, charge their designs with the capacity to critically reference the ocean pollution that mobilises their eco-sustainable practice.
Attracting Investment: On an economic level, the aim of Supercyclers is complex. There isn’t a dedicated retail component to the website or the exhibitions they produce. But as Sarah K says, “Hopefully, we’re promoting behind the scenes, so everyone can make a living out of what they’re doing.” Yet, their aim is not for their products to get picked up by a major manufacturer. As Sarah K reflects, “if somebody came along and said we want to produce all the Supercycler works, and we want to make them into a range, that wouldn’t be the perfect thing.” It would go against the ethos of the Supercyclers, which Sarah K says, “is about acknowledging difference.” That is, stressing the heterogeneity of the supercycling phenomenon, which spans disparate design practices and global regions.
Another important aspect of Supercyclers’ economic values is clearly represented in its emphasis on community workshops. As Rossler argues:
One of the things that has changed is that traditionally, we’d make something and sell it. Now what’s really important is collaborative creativity. People used to express creatively through what they bought. Now people feel more of a desire to create things. Making things together, and the fact that you can make money in the exchange of ideas, not only through the one single retail aspect. There is a real movement toward sharing design processes. I think that you can see this with the whole Etsy thing, and workshops that are happening. It’s grass roots creativity for women and for men. We need to encourage that sort of tinkering and pulling things apart that men traditionally used to do as a kid in the shed, and encourage that to continue that as adult. In many ways we’re seeing that through cooking, but there are so many ways of being creative. Ultimately creativity is a rewarding activity. It makes people feel good when they’re making something. In terms of commercially designing, I think what used to be valued was the raw material. I think now value is in the time that was spent on something. It’s not just the material itself that holds the value.
As such, the over-arching aim is to encourage supercycling within the broader community as a means of placing aesthetic and monetary value on common urban waste while revealing the potential of eco-sustainable design practices.
outcomes & impacts
Cultural and Social
Visual/Aesthetic: Sarah K and Rossler have successfully transformed single-use plastic bags into bowls, cups, spoons and other homewares, as seen in their Plastic Fantastic Range. Moreover, in 2012 they launched the Yours to Care For range, converting used plastic straws into vases.
Innovation/Risk (Technical), Skills Acquisition and Audience Engagement: Rossler and Sarah K’s Supercycler workshops—which to date have only been held in Sydney—have acted as a crucial platform to transfer the skills and ethos of supercycling to the public. Reflecting on the outcomes of the workshops Rossler observed:
People really responded, and think “I won’t throw out my bags, I’ll make something with them”, and it makes people look at things in a different way. It’s about design thinking and a different approach. Everyone knows about the plastic bag problem, so we are looking at whatever we can do to work out solutions for it.
The Supercyclers project has been featured in a range of design magazines, news broadsheets and websites, including Australian Design Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Brisbane Times, Marie Claire Maison, Vogue Living, Belle and Inside Out magazine, Australian Design Review, Frankie, Wallpaper* magazine, Elle Décor Italia, House & Garden UK, World of Interiors, Slowear, Damn, Trendtablet, Coolhunting, Architonic, Unconsumption, Inhabitat, DeTnk, Curbly, The Design Files, State of Green, and Indesignlive, thus reaching a broad audience. Moreover, Rossler has been invited talk about sustainable design practices and the Supercyclers project on By Design (ABC Radio).
Attracting Investment: Sarah K and Rossler generated a successful Pozible campaign in 2012 in order to exhibit their designs—and the designs of other Supercyclers—in Milan. As Sarah K argues, “In its broadest sense, even those who donated a few dollars through Pozible to help get the Supercyclers exhibition to Milan this year can be considered Supercyclers.”
Beyond crowdfunding, Rossler and Sarah K’s supercycling projects have also attracted substantial attention from the design industry and market. Rossler and Sarah K have, for example, been commissioned to produce Plastic Fantastic collections by Deco-oh (Brussels), Elle D’Eco Hotel (Amsterdam) and 19 Greek Street (London).
In 2010 Liane Rossler left Dinosaur Designs—an internationally renowned design company she co-founded in 1985—in order to focus on a range of independent sustainable design projects. One of these projects was Supercyclers, developed after Rossler met Sarah K at the Powerhouse Museum’s 2010 Sydney Design Festival. In 2011, inspired by David de Rothschild’s Plastiki design—a functioning sail boat composed of 12,500 plastic bottles—Sarah K and Rossler would begin to experiment with ways to work with plastic in order to produce eco-sustainable designs. Eventually producing the Plastic Fantastic range, Rossler and King’s practice is interested in pursuing a new eco-sustainable business model that places emphasis on sharing knowledge and skills as opposed to turning a profit. As Rossler argues, “For years people just used to design stuff. Now, there’s just so much stuff, we need to look at things differently rather than making more stuff for the sake of making more.”
Impacts of artwork production
In the following statement Liane Rossler and Sarah K reflect on the materiality and environmental impacts of producing the Plastic Fantastic and Yours to Care For products.
Plastic is a super-material, and should be considered a valuable commodity. It has this ability to last forever, so instead of creating products intended for a single use only to be subsequently discarded, we could be making things that need to be cared for and kept. As Supercyclers, we are inspired by the challenge of the great Pacific Garbage Patch and the trillions of plastic bags that end up in the ocean. Moreover, our work reflects on the fact that between 60,000,000 and 500,000,000 plastic drinking straws are consumed and discarded each day. We focus on endowing these objects with a beauty and function that can transform our perceptions and use of synthetic materials. The pieces we make are able to be recycled after use if required. The creation of a Plastic Fantastic or Yours to Care For product only uses up a small amount of energy (we use green energy).
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Hargreaves, Joan-Maree. “Liane Rossler on Supercycling and the Future of Design.” D*Hub. http://www.dhub.org/liane-rossler-on-supercycling-and-the-future-of-design/ (accessed December 8, 2012).
Keens, Leta. “Spotlight on Supercyclers.” Australian Design Review, entry posted August 9, 2012. http://www.australiandesignreview.com/features/23071-spotlight-on-supercyclers (accessed December 10, 2012).
Radio National. “The Panel Looks at Things Handmade.” Radio National: By Design. Audio recording. http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bydesign/the-panel-looks-a-things-handmade/4291406 (accessed December 10, 2012).
Rossler, Liane. Interview by author, July 5, 2013.
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“Trash to Treasure.” Brisbane Times. Photo gallery. http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/photogallery/lifestyle/homestyle/trash-to-treasure-20120824-24pw6.html (accessed December 10, 2012).