4 -min. read

Intended to see out 30 years from 1925 – yet cut short in 1939 with the onset of World War II – the Phoebus cartel was formed by a gang of crooks with some surprising names, Osram, General Electric and Philips among them. Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, or El Chapo’s Sinaloa drug lords, might be the first ‘cartels’ to spring to mind, but seemingly honest businesses have long united with nefarious intentions, seeking to increase collective profits by way of price fixing, limiting supply, or other anti-competitive practices.

“We simply refuse to add to the abundance of waste on our streets, in our landfill sites, rivers and oceans. We exist to reduce this poisonous glut. To use human ingenuity and conscious consumerism to design our way out of this looming disaster.”– words from Pentatonic

Working to standardise the life expectancy of lightbulbs to just 1,000 hours, the Phoebus cartel’s activities remained secret for decades; but the first time they were eventually exposed to the public at large would be familiarised with the term ‘planned obsolescence’ – a strategy by which brands and corporations would purposely limit the lifespan of their products in the name of greed. Burning since 1901, the Centennial Light – located at 4550 East Avenue, Livermore, California – is 117 years of proof that such a strategy exists, and is a glowing representation of the needless waste consumerism that has been cast out upon Mother Nature.

From the 350 million printer cartridges that find their way annually to the landfills of North America alone; to gargantuan and environmentally toxic home refrigerators declining in lifespan from 50-plus years to less than 10; to the rise of fast fashion; to the noxious culture of single-use, disposable living that saw more than 480 billion plastic bottles bought around the world last year, for many of us who recognise the wrongs our race is doing, there can still be a sense of helplessness – a collective sigh that we’re just too small to make a difference. Whilst we might not be able to have immediate impact upon institutionalised corporate avarice, we can all start small by making better buying decisions.

Launching their debut collection of customisable flat-packed furniture at last year’s London Design Festival, Pentatonic – a startup founded by Johann Bödecker and Jamie Hall – seek to reverse the casual excessiveness of everyday consumption, turning problems into opportunities by inventing new materials that use the earth’s most abundant resource: human trash.

If we can’t single-handedly plug the unabating deluge of waste, we sure can celebrate those who are repurposing the consequence of our aggregate abandon. Less than 100 years since the beginning of its widespread use, and we have already produced enough plastic to satisfy our needs forever – ditto for glass – if we were to reincarnate our waste, saving it from landfills, rivers, and oceans… It’s as commonsensical as not diving head first into an empty swimming pool.

The Pentatonic Airtool Chair
The Pentatonic Airtool Chair

With 2.5 billon disposable cups wasted every year in the UK alone, Starbucks have just become the country’s first coffee chain to trial a five-pence charge on takeaway cups. With waste on this staggering scale, action like this is critical – that the hotel industry is intrinsically linked with throwaway culture means demonstrating responsibility is more important than ever. Educating guests and replacing single-use plastics is one important step, as is staff training and the implementation of a functional, waste-analysis programme. But what if furniture, fabrics and design details were diverting waste from its inevitable end destination? In a business where mass-produced furniture is frequently a necessity – and often on considerable scale – what if that furniture was repurposing waste the Pentatonic way?

Only ever using trash as a starting point, and with a dogma that raw materials only create new waste, Bödecker and Hall’s modular furniture utilises standardised components and minimises carbon footprint and unnecessary waste in its ease of shipment. New parts can be replaced one at a time, and it is their ambition that their products will be produced at the source of most trash. Taiwan, for example – possessing the world’s largest concentration of smartphone glass – was where the brand produced their design-conscious glassware from repurposed smartphone screens, with the world’s most premium-grade glass also being one of its lesser-publicised, large-scale waste problems.

Repurposing smartphone glass
Repurposing smartphone glass

Designing each product in such a way that it is entirely re-recyclable in the future, Pentatonic also offer a buy-back guarantee that ensures the circularity of their project. As each product is produced using single materials, there are no additional toxins, glues or resins, so everything the Berlin- and London-based brand manufacture can stay in the loop. Customers can turn suppliers in a lifetime responsibility to their output, which goes as far as including a ‘digital logbook’ on each and every Pentatonic component, with a tiny, engraved number allowing customers to track its journey from type of waste used to previous owners.

By making waste desirable again, Pentatonic’s answer to the global conundrum is a small step in the only direction we can take. The acknowledgement that limiting waste is critical has been made. It’s high time we recognise the importance of repurposing, too.

iPhone case made from recycled polycarbonate
An iPhone case made from recycled polycarbonate found in DVDs, combined with rice husk, the tough inedible byproduct of rice farming.

James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.

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