words Ayesha Kapila
images The Sea Chair Project
Royal College of Art graduates Kieren Jones, Alexander Groves and Azusa Murakami have devised a plan to turn a retired fishing trawler into a plastic chair factory.
The group visited the Cornish village of Porthtowan earlier this year during a series of research trips around the UK. It was during that visit that discovered the existence of “nurdles”, 2mm-sized pieces of plastic debris which threaten the ecology of the ocean. The plastic fragments absorb toxins while in the sea and then get eaten by fish. If the fish survive, they introduce the chemicals into the food chain.
“We were really fascinated by this infrastructure in our oceans,” says Jones. “We noticed all this plastic floating about, and we just wanted to remove it.”
The project is still in its early stages, but the plan is to modify a disused fishing ship and to kit it out with a collection machine that enables the separation of plastic and other marine debris. The trio has built an early working prototype of this, called the Nurdler, using parts bought on eBay.
“We saw people picking up these nurdles by hand,” explains Jones. “It was terribly slow and we realised we had to make a contraption to remove the plastic from the sea. You collect sand with a bucket and pour it into the top through the funnel. Then, with simple flotation technology, the plastic is collected.”
The group plans to find a way to feed the plastic it harvests into a rotation-moulding machine on board its converted trawler to turn the collected material into recycled chairs – a process inspired by buoy manufacturers.
“There was once a rich heritage of making buoys through rotation moulding and now these old English manufacturers are struggling,” Jones says. “To work with these local industries, like fishermen and buoy manufacturers, who have a long history of working with the oceans, would be ideal.”
Jones describes the ship as a “floating factory”, with the entire production process occurring board. The group have also figured out a way to save on storage costs.
“Because the plastic would be treated in the same way as buoys, the chairs could be latched with a piece of rope and thrown overboard, floating in the water until required,” says Jones.
The trio, who met on the RCA’s Design Products course, has found funding for the project difficult to secure, but hopes that the larger benefits of the Sea Chair Project will ultimately attract support.
“Sustainability should be an obligation for designers, not a trend,” says Jones. “I think when people first hear about this project, they think of Weetabix chairs, but then when they hear of the social element -– of working with fishermen and coastal buoy manufacturers – the project becomes quite seductive.”