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The Next Economy
Free, Open-Source Recycling Ecosystem Is Making Plastic ‘Precious’

Precious Plastic is all about democratizing circularity. And it’s enabling a new form of craftsmanship: One in which anyone, anywhere, can start a small business recycling and making new products from plastic waste.

If you ask Mattia Bernini, plastic is not the problem; it’s how many plastic products are made.

Bernini is Design Director at Precious Plastic — a free, open-source, plastic-recycling system based on the premise that if plastics are valued, they will be wasted less. Bernini envisions the beginning of a new form of craftsmanship: One that anyone, anywhere, can pick up; one that turns plastic into as sought-after a material as wood, marble, copper or steel.

“With a little bit of love, a few machines and a bit of knowledge; you can transform [plastic] into art, furniture,” he tells Sustainable Brands®. “It’s really this shift in ideology and mentality that we’re trying to push forward: To invite more people to see this material as valuable.”

Democratizing circularity is what Precious Plastic is all about. The organization maintains an open-source design database for nimble, scaled-down recycling machines that are relatively simple and affordable to build. These machines excel at recycling number 2, 4, 5 and 6 plastics; as well as ABS, PLA and others. They don’t work with PVC (number 3 plastic) or PET (number 1 plastic) — the latter because recycled PET already provides a significant material stream for the beverage industry.

The Precious Plastic Universe is an ecosystem designed to divert plastics into value streams in ways conventional systems could find difficult. Large, centralized recycling centers, Bernini explained, are inflexible to change; so, they don’t lend themselves to iterating at the scale needed to stem the plastic tide. They’re also prone to market disruptions and bankruptcy. In some communities, Bernini explained, it’s too expensive to scale conventional recycling systems quickly, especially for communities in the Global South — which just so happens to be the epicenter of the plastic pollution crisis.

While calculating precise metrics is nearly impossible, the organization’s recent impact report estimates that in 2022, the Precious Plastic Universe yielded:

  • Nearly 600,000 tons of recycled material

  • $36 million in revenue for local operators, who employed over 6,400 people

  • 11,510 volunteers

  • 1,881 machines built.

“Our role is to sort of glue together all of the different roles, enterprises and businesses; and help them to collaborate more on a global and local scale,” Bernini said.

As the world hashes out a first-of-its-kind, globally binding plastics treaty, Precious Plastic is positioning itself as a key solution in tackling the plastics pollution crisis. But Precious Plastic is about practicality, not policy.

“Because we work from the bottom up, we just don’t want to wait for government policymakers to come in,” Bernini said. “Our platform is such that instead of waiting for someone to do something, get out and create your own solution. Our goal is to create this global movement of people that are already doing something with plastics.”

Nonetheless, Bernini recognizes the role that other mechanisms — including virgin-plastic reductions, circular design, infrastructure improvements, financing, etc — must play in breaking the plastic wave.

But for niche markets and areas without access to recycling, the Precious Plastic Universe can drastically reduce the environmental footprint of virgin feedstocks and spur a mindset shift that could ripple through the entire circular ecosystem.

“The people that are making these products, they are usually collecting the material from their neighbors, friends and customers,” Bernini said. “These types of bonds enable stories, communication and a human connection that is nonexistent in mass-produced products.”

Plastic lasts a very long time; and Bernini wants to see circular economies make use of the durability of plastic for local contexts, and in ways the big recycling players can’t match. For example, sorting differently colored plastics is a major hurdle for large recycling systems, but the unique pigments, textures, and synergies of the various colors actually set them up to be a beautiful medium for craftsmanship.

Another project creates tables from coffee pods, which are notoriously difficult to recycle thanks to the stubborn aluminum foil glued around their edges. Precious Plastic machines, however, can process these without damaging the machine or compromising material quality, resulting in unique composites with flecks and twirls of aluminum. Just one of these tables utilizes nearly 90 pounds of spent pods.

“If you have a multimillion-dollar machine, you’re not going to manipulate it, innovate with it or risk it,” Bernini said. “You’re going to go with what’s proven. You’re not going to experiment with new materials.”

But Precious Plastic machines are orders of magnitude cheaper; and parts are easily repaired or fabricated (usually by the owner/operator themselves), creating a low-risk innovation ecosystem.

“This enables people to try out new things and do a lot of R&D,” Bernini said. “That sort of nimbleness and agility of small-scale machines can enable a lot of R&D and testing that would be very expensive to do for [large] companies.”

Operator innovations can be shared in an open source ecosystem, feeding yet more innovative solutions into a growing need for more machines, processes and entire-system redesigns. Some of the best innovations come from the fringes of the Precious Plastic community, Bernini noted; and without open-source knowledge, scaling these solutions would be nearly impossible.

“These people are applying our solutions to their local contexts and challenges,” Bernini explained. “We are trying to enable more of these innovators and engineers to develop more solutions to share back with the community, so that it can grow. And the knowledge can not only be created by us, but the community; so we can decentralize the generation of knowledge.”

In addition to open-source schematics, Precious Plastic develops and freely shares tools to help people build a successful recycling business.

“We have to get as many people on board as possible,” Bernini concluded. “When you have a novel idea or solution and you put it behind a paywall or membership or patent, you drastically reduce the number of people who can access that information … We are true believers that free and open knowledge can travel far and wide, and go beyond any wildest hopes and expectations.”