Two entrepreneurial designers snubbed the graduate job market to launch their own eco-friendly lifestyle brand.
Beneath a great, sweeping bend of railway track on the banks of Deptford Creek in South East London, a thriving community of artists, creatives and craftspeople have made their home in a complex of converted warehouse space. Occupying the ground floor of one of these spaces are eco-friendly plastic recyclers Happenstance Workshop.
Their workspace is crammed full of machinery – saws, presses, power tools, wooden worktops, looping wires – but is equally impressive in its efficiency. Pen holders are fixed to the side of workbenches. Plug sockets appear in all the right places.
Happenstance is a design studio focusing on the production of “quality eco-friendly products for the home” founded by Jordan and Bob Watson from Lincoln. Their products – coat pegs, bowls, drinks coasters and charming pendant lights – are beautifully crafted from 100% recycled high-density polyethylene, the material used to make plastic milk bottles.
Just last week the UK government announced that customers will have to pay more for plastic bottles as part of an effort to “boost recycling and cut waste”, but prior to this announcement, much of the conversation around plastics in the media has been focussed on reducing or stoping the use of it altogether. Where others see a problem however, Bob and Jordan see a solution.
The pair operate under the principle of cradle to cradle manufacturing, a style of production that takes the entire lifecycle of a product into account. In a snug office space at the back of their studio, Jordan explains:
“The ‘end of life’ of the product is designed at the same point as the ‘use of life’. We’re thinking about how our products will be used when they can’t be used anymore. It’s just simply the idea of designing for a complete, closed loop”.
“We’re directly involved with the waste. We’re responsible for the stuff we produce, we don’t just make it and wash our hands of it”
Having struck an agreement with nearby performing arts centre The Albany, they have ensured a reliable source of completely free raw material.
“We have a little setup with them. They provide us with their used milk bottles once a week from their cafe. We can then grind them up and re-mould them”. This brilliant technique eliminates waste and pollution. Any products that are no longer wanted can be sent back to Happenstance to break down, re-mould and re-use.
How do they do it?
Bob and Jordan mainly use equipment they’ve constructed themselves, based on what is essentially an online community of information shared between similar small-scale recyclers, with a few personalised tweaks.
Once their plastic is collected, it’s placed in an industrial grinder that slices it into thin shavings. These are placed into netted bags and thoroughly cleaned in a washing machine to rid it of any old milk or dirt left on the surface.
“The mesh bags act as a first filter to stop microplastics going down the drain. But some plastic does go through the machine and is caught in our second filter” Jordan points to an odd, angular, piped contraption, “Bob did this one, it’s a mixture of sand, gravel and charcoal. It’s an old technique apparently for if you’re trapped, like, in the bush and need clean water. But for us, we can’t let any microplastics back into the water system for obvious reasons”.
“we’re basically the only ones in the UK who are doing this kind of scale of recycling plastic and making these kinds of objects”.
Once cleaned, the shavings are left to dry before being placed in the mould. Then, their manually driven compression moulder heats and presses it into shape. “We apply pressure downward through this screw into the mould. One half is like a ram and the other half is the reservoir for plastic”. As the plastic gets molten, it all fuses together.
After a few hours of drying, any excess plastic is cut, and you’re left with a perfectly smooth, handcrafted, 100% recycled product likely to withstand more than 30 years of use.
The purity of the material is an important point. It makes the recycling process much easier. “One of the biggest problems is the contamination of materials” Jordan says. When materials are mixed together with things like glue, for example, it becomes much more difficult to reuse.
Take books for instance. The ink, a synthetic material, is applied to paper, an organic material. This hybrid is problematic in re-processing as “it just becomes some sort of mush of both the things together and is difficult to reuse”.
Bob is standing on a workbench, tinkering with some wiring. He mentions that they used to work with a lot of timber, and tried to turn the waste into a new material. “we were producing a lot of waste woodwork, like chippings and stuff, so we tried to re-use it in some sort of combination with resin or something”
“But the more you mix these materials together, it’s not a good thing really. You can recycle it once maybe, but then at the end of that lifespan the material is gone, as opposed to, you know, trying to keep everything pure so it will last many many years”.
An enormous waste collection tube – essentially a hoover with a much wider mouth – is swept around the floor to suck up any plastic shavings lost in production. These are simply reintroduced to the start of the process.
“It came to plastic for us” says Jordan, “because it was like, this is a material that is a problem and it’s almost like we thought it would be better to try and come up with a solution for that material rather than just go ‘oh it’s the most terrible thing in the world let’s never work with it’”.
“In the media there’s a lot of hype around just getting rid of plastic”. The issue, Jordan explains, is not necessarily the material, but the design and manufacturing structure within which it operates. “Basically the material is just being completely misused and wrongly designed with. But if you do it correctly and you have items like ours…” he picks up one of their beautifully marbled plastic bowls “…then it can be a really good thing”.
Happenstance has garnered a loyal following through craft fairs, word of mouth and flyering to local businesses. Social media, and Instagram in particular, has allowed them to reach beyond local spheres to a wider customer base. Now, they have regular orders and commissions and have worked with brands like Ecover, who bought into their eco-friendly production method.
But starting a business from scratch in your early twenties is never easy. It requires heavy sacrifice and a lot of hard work. Jordan and Bob met at college in Lincoln, where they initially played with the idea of starting a studio together. After splitting up for university – Bob studied fine art at Central St Martin’s while Jordan took design at Camberwell college – they reunited on graduation to launch a joint venture.
“We’ve been into making stuff since college or whatever” Jordan says. “It just seemed like a fun idea at the time. Coming out of uni, it was a really bad job market at the time”.
“But, you go to uni and you’re doing all this making and designing and it’s like, I want to carry on doing that. I spoke to Bob about it and we were just like ‘yeah, F*** it. let’s just make a studio”.
Since its inception, both Bob and Jordan have had to work long hours alongside running Happenstance to help fund operations. Bob is now stuffing meshed bags with plastic shavings, he looks up ruefully and admits, “you have to be prepared to work 6 days a week, 7 days a week in Jordan’s case”.
“It takes its toll, but if you’re doing something you wanna do, and it is cool that we’ve got this place you know, I forget about it sometimes but it’s like not many people are in the situation where they can go into a workshop and like mess around with ideas, and there’s some money to play around with and work on projects and stuff”.
Continuing the legacy
Happenstance run workshops for students who attend the top art schools in the country. Young designers and artists come from Goldsmiths, Camberwell, and Central Saint Martin’s among others to learn their techniques.
“Some of them book workshops and have a bit more intensive time and take an item away at the end of it as well. So there’s a nice community around it so that’s been a driving force for change”.
This is not new kit, but the scale of it is new. In the past, recycling of this type was normally carried out by massive lucrative businesses who were reluctant to share the technology. It took a few engineers and a culture of the internet for the information to spread.
“It is like we have bastardised that industrial technology which is kind of funny. I kind of like it though, we’re just taking all their fancy kit but just making smaller cheaper versions but producing pretty amazing results”.