Published 6 months ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Precious Plastic
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
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
already provides a significant material stream for the beverage industry.
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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
— which just so happens to be the
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
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,”
As the world hashes out a first-of-its-kind, globally binding plastics
Precious Plastic is positioning itself as a key solution in tackling the
plastics pollution crisis. But Precious Plastic is about practicality, not
“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
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
“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.”
Published Aug 14, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.