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Expanded Polystyrene

Voak’s project reimagines the lifespan and potential uses of expanded polystyrene. With the continued growth of online shopping, especially as a result of the pandemic, there could be a greater abundance of polystyrene packaging than ever before. Voak’s research found that while polystyrene is 100% recyclable, it is not commonly recycled in the UK. 

Her material exploration and dye processes were carefully considered to limit environmental impact. During her experiments, she found an organic compound that causes the polystyrene to change into a moldable consistency. The resulting material is hard compared to the soft, slightly spongy original polystyrene, and can be smooth or textured as desired. By rethinking this single use plastic, Voak hopes to shine a light on an issue in the UK recycling system and also show that the uses of polystyrene can go beyond the packaging and thermal insulation that it is commonly known for.

Unwanted and underrated packaging, 98% air, lightweight, organic architecture, soft, slightly spongy, bubbly.

Smooth, synthetic, silky, thick or thin, flat or 3D, stable, solid, marble, airy, translucent.

Visually impactful and with a wide range of textures, colours and patterns, the material can be used in a variety of applications in leisure and hospitality environments.

Recrafting Value
Ravel, Unravel, Layer

Dent used two overlooked plastics to create new materials for use in commercial hospitality and transport interiors. Polypropylene and Polyethylene nets are found in supermarket waste streams. Both are strong, lightweight and can be coated with antimicrobial properties to suit a post-pandemic world. Dent worked with the brightly coloured materials, manipulating them through plying, weaving and heat setting to create mottled effects in subtle colour palettes, whilst adding strength and longevity to the materials. The resulting textiles allow colour and light to diffuse, encouraging a closer look. The new mono-materials can still be recycled in a closed loop system.

Low-density, lightweight and hydrophobic polypropylene and polyethylene nets found in supermarket waste streams.

This semi-rigid woven surface is smooth, malleable, strong, mottled, translucent and long-lasting. The textiles allow colour and light to diffuse through.

These hard-wearing surfaces would suit an interior transport environment such as the tube, to add vibrancy and juxtapose against a neutral space.


Tracing is a set of painting tools made of recycled single-used EPE fruit net foam. Inspired by relational aesthetics in contemporary art, Liu’s project focuses on the interaction between users, products, and environment. The recycled single-use plastics can be used as tools to leave marks and to build relationships between customers and designs. They also represent the physical effects of pollution and aim to raise awareness of the damage caused by plastics. The colour palette is divided into four groups, “soil”, “body”, “ocean” and “air”, corresponding to the four key areas impacted by single-use plastics. Tracing can be applied in museums, creative workshops, retail stores, domestic settings and more. It is unique, playful and recyclable.

recycled single-use EPE fruit net foam.

Soft, light, spongy, waterproof, protective, heat resistant, harmless and brightly coloured.

Tracing can be applied in museums, creative workshops, retail stores, domestic settings and more. It is unique, playful and recyclable.


Drift aims to communicate  the  value  of  the ephemeral  through  the  slow  process  of  craftsmanship. Inspired by the strength and softness of water, Pei-Fen’s project embodies the idea of fluidity and movement by transforming single use plastic from a disposable product into new materials. Pei-Fen wanted to challenge the idea  that plastic wrapping is fragile by deconstructing and reconstructing polyethylene  wrapping into surface materials with a delicate aesthetic, which could be used for interior application. The contrast between the organic texture of her material and the repetitive flow of the sea further inspired her exploration into irregular patterns and modular designs. Playing between fragility and protection, mass production and handcraft,  Drift epitomises  the  modern  time:  an  inevitable  coexistence  between nature and the man-made, destruction and opportunity in the Anthropocene.

Sensorial Plastics

When Covid 19 hit, many recycling centres in the UK were temporarily closed due to concerns regarding the spread of the virus. Scott’s project centred around finding ways to reuse plastic waste that would most often be sent to landfill or disused recycling points. Working with domestic supplies made from HDPE and PET such as milk cartons, clothing packaging and shampoo bottles, Scott was interested in creating sensorial experiences with the plastics for use in future multi-use retail environments for 2025. Using no heat and slow design processes such as hand stitching and pleating, she was able to create material samples that appeal both visually and through touch. Scott wanted to help people create a deeper emotional connection to the plastics which would in turn make them more respectful of materials.


Plastic is not just an ocean issue. It is also a desert issue

Plastic bags are one of the biggest contributors to the Middle East’s plastic problem. They get blown across the desert even if disposed of properly, resulting in harm to the natural landscape and wildlife. Using plastic bags as her source material, Wilkinson sought to embrace the transformation of this material as a way to extend and reveal its hidden potential. She approached this by inverting and challenging the material’s properties. Through this transformation, the value of the plastic bag is elevated thus challenging perception and demonstrating its potential for alternative uses. Inspired by the success of the UAE’s first drone taxi test, Wilkinson focused on applying her newly created materials to lounge interiors in drone taxi airports.

Multi-dimensional thinking on recycled plastics: Repple plastic project

Chen used the acoustic properties of expanded polystyrene as her starting point. Exploring the sounds of nature and the sounds of the city as her creative inspiration, she designed a distinct aesthetic made from recycled expanded polystyrene. Her main design method consisted of collecting sounds, analysing the data thereof and using it to generate intricate patterns. Chen explored a range of methods to transform her source material, including laser cutting, 3D printing and weaving. The resulting re-worked expanded polystyrene is suitable for a range of applications, from soundproof walls to stuffing for toys, 3D printing filament or furniture filling.


Buddha+stic is derived from the idea of community collection, looking in particular at specific events where participants are most likely to have natural incentives and shared values. Hong looked into the Buddhist community in her hometown, Fujian and collected waste generated during temple rituals. She was struck by the dichotomy of a negative impact – waste – born out of a practice filled with good intentions – religious ritual. The materials she collected were mostly the same across each site: incense packaging, red plastic bags and tea light cups. Using these materials, Hong wished to design a remote ritual that responds to a post-pandemic environment. Instead of putting money into offertory boxes, users bring the plastic waste from their ritual, recording the deed on an app, where they can also track the application of the plastic they contributed. Hong’s final design is a lotus shaped table lamp made from remoulding the collected plastics, which emits the scent of incense when being used. The Lotus shape is a common signifier in Buddhist culture that represents purity and dignity.

Plastic Planet

We can’t imagine a world without plastic. And while some of it can be reused or recycled, single-use plastics are either landfilled or incinerated, causing environmental pollution. Kyurim used her own consumption as her starting point, working specifically with HDPE bottle lids, which are widely used in everything from milk bottles to household products but seldom effectively recycled. Using Precious Plastic’s open-source technology, she transformed this HDPE waste into a translucent material in different shades and patterns, which can be used to great effect in interiors, particularly when combined with light.

“Don’t throw me away, I can be used again.” — Plastic

Liu’s project is founded on the belief that if plastic becomes seen as a beautiful, delicate and multifunctional material that can be reused again and again, people will be recycling plastic continually, thus reducing the amount of new plastic in the world. By melting and weaving PVC and polypropylene, she was able to create a new textile. An infographic representing the dangers of plastic pollution has been transformed into a pattern printed onto this fabric. Using magnets, plastic ropes and accessories, consumers can use her recycled plastic fabric to create a range of bags, storage boxes or home accessories.

Transformer X – Plastic Future

Zhang’s project illustrates her vision for the endless potential of plastic as a raw material to define future material solutions. ‘X’ refers to an undefined future while ‘Transformer’ represents the multiple possibilities and transformations of plastics. After identifying three major problems in current plastic recycling systems, Zhang built a full-scale systematic design model. Her experiments combined aesthetic ideals with science, and were based on an exploration of plastics on a molecular level. Zhang used recycled plastics and water to create new materials, which she calls Water Driven Surfaces. These capture the delicate chemical reaction that occurs when water molecules disrupt the forming process of plastic molecules, changing their inner structure and physical properties, offering new materials that can be used in a wide range of environments.


London Design Festival logo

This exhibition is part of the official programme of the London Design Festival 2021.

Thank you to the Royal College of Art for our continued partnership. Special thanks to Jemma Ooi, Anne Toomey and Claire Miller. Thank you also to all the students who took part in this project for their resilience, creative thinking and resourcefulness during challenging circumstances.

Images courtesy of the students.

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