Technological watch

'Prince of Plastic' Karim Rashid brings recycled plastics to design

In conversation with PN sister publication Sustainable Plastics, industrial designer Karim Rashid said using recycled plastics in design is becoming mainstream, but that there is still a market gap for using biodegradable plastics. 

How does one become ‘The Prince of Plastic’? Nicknamed as such by Time magazine over 20 years ago, Karim Rashid is one of the most famous industrial designers in the world. His favourite material to design with is plastic - because of its ability to make the banal extraordinary.

Speaking at the World Plastic Connection Summit, happening this week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Rashid told of how he first fell in love with polymers. The son of an abstract artist, he grew up in a modest household in Canada. The family couldn’t afford expensive furniture or decorations, but he was nevertheless surrounded by cheap plastic objects which he fondly remembers as being beautiful.

“These products were democratic,” Rashid said. He was fascinated by the versatile, durable, cheap materials that could turn banal products like phones and chairs into the object of pride of almost any family.

When Rashid started working as an industrial engineer, he ventured to take full advantage of the characteristics of polymers in the service of what he likes to call ‘designocracy’ – designing banal but beautiful objects that improve the quality of life of anyone using it.

“With polymers I could do anything,” Rashid said. While some of his luxury creations are certainly not available to everyone, some of his most famous work is affordable. The Booble water bottle, for example, was the first to include a filter-as-you-go and it cost around $10. It sold millions of copies, back when reusable water bottles weren’t a thing. Not only did its users save money by buying bottled water less frequently, they also consumed less plastic on a monthly basis, Rashid proudly pointed out.

And what’s the favourite plastic of the Prince of Plastic? Polypropylene (PP), Rashid told Sustainable Plastics during a Q&A session. He loves the way the material flows through the injection moulding machine and the way it interacts with colour additives. One of his famous creations made from virgin PP is the Garbo garbage can, which introduced colour to over 7 million rooms across the world.

Despite being a big fan of PP, the designer showed some frustration at his partners for not always showing interest in exploring new types of plastic. He was introduced to bioplastics through polylactic acid (PLA) made from sugar cane, over 10 years ago at a Braskem facility in Brazil. He was keen to use the bioplastic but none of the plastic companies he reached out to were interested, he said.

“There’s no chair on the market made from biodegradable plastic - designers are missing out on a huge opportunity,” Rashid told Sustainable Plastics. He already has recycled plastics in his repertoire, for example in the Oceana furniture collection which uses up-cycled plastics recovered from the ocean. Using recycled plastic in design ‘is becoming the mainstream’, he concluded.

Publication date: 28/08/2023

Plastics News - automotive


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.