The Eames Plastic Chair – for a more sustainable future!

Interview with Thomas Schweikert and Eames Demetrios

One of the most innovative chairs of the twentieth century has undergone a change in material. In close alignment with Vitra’s environmental mission, production of the Eames Plastic Chair switched to post-consumer recycled polypropylene in January 2024 – a resource that can be recycled again at the end of its lifespan.

In the following interview Vitra asks two significant experts about the material change, what it means for this classic icon, and also what technical challenges were encountered along the way. Eames Demetrios is Director of the Eames Office and one of five grandchildren of Charles and Ray Eames while Thomas Schweikert serves as the technical lead in sustainability and research at Vitra with more than 30 years’ experience in the company’s product development.

Thomas, let’s start from the beginning. Until the end of last year, the Eames Plastic Chair was available in standard polypropylene. In collaboration with the Eames Office, this is the third material changeover project Vitra has undertaken since the Eames Shell Chair was first introduced in 1950. When did Vitra decide to change the material again and what led to the decision to use post-consumer recycled polypropylene instead of virgin polypropylene?

TS: At Vitra, materials are a preeminent concern as their sourcing, processing and use in products constitute about 80% of the company’s overall carbon footprint (cf. 2022 Vitra carbon footprint). That’s why Vitra strives to utilise materials that are as sustainable and low impact as possible. The material changeover for the Eames Plastic Chair started around two years ago. My main responsibility at Vitra is to have a ‘sustainable’ outlook on the portfolio of designs and track products where we see an opportunity to switch to a more sustainable and low-impact alternative. We naturally started with the most popular designs, which include the Eames Plastic Chair in polypropylene. Polypropylene is already a recyclable material – but our goal was also to produce the shell from a recycled material, which can then be recycled again at the end of its useful life.

When we talk about plastic recycling, it is essential to differentiate between post-consumer and post-industrial plastic. For Vitra it is important to use post-consumer material because it is plastic that has already been utilised for another purpose and would otherwise simply be incinerated if it was not recycled. Post-industrial plastic on the other hand is a leftover material from a production process, either in the form of scrap or quality rejects. Technically, post-industrial plastic is also still a virgin material. Using post-consumer material allows Vitra to make the biggest difference in terms of carbon footprint and other environmental aspects.

When searching for a post-consumer source of high-quality used plastic, we opted for the German Gelber Sack or Yellow Bag recycling programme because the waste collected in this system is a clean, almost pure polymer and the plastic comes from Germany, so it’s close to our manufacturing facilities.

Can you tell us more about the Gelber Sack system?

TS: Introduced by the German government in 1993, the Gelber Sack system has proven popular and effective. Households use the bags to collect recyclable plastic containers and other designated categories of packaging. The supply chain is consequently safe and stable. The bags are picked up once a month and transported to a local recycling plant. The supplier of recycled plastic for the Eames Plastic Chair RE is one of the most experienced and technically well-equipped recycling companies in Germany.

Like a number of employees at Vitra, you live in Germany, close to the Swiss border, and you personally recycle your waste in this sustainable Yellow Bag system. It must be fascinating for you to be an indirect supplier of material for the new Eames Shell Chairs?

TS: Yes, in theory I am, and this is indeed an interesting thought! But the process from the collection of my Yellow Bag to the transformation of its content into a chair is rather long. First the post-consumer plastic must be cleaned and separated into different kinds of plastics and qualities. Then the pieces are divided into colours: a dark tone, light tone and a grey. Finally, it is granulated and made ready for use in production. The fact that we are able to create something beautiful out of local waste makes me very happy.

Can you imagine other products made from this material?

TS: Besides Tip Ton RE, accessories such as Toolbox RE, Locker Box and Drop Box, the Chap stool, the entire HAL RE chair family and now the Eames Plastic Chair RE, we are generally looking to use this material as a much more sustainable solution than virgin material. It is not only about manufacturing whole products from it, but also individual components, in some cases hidden within the product. We plan to implement a material changeover for all our designs made of plastic by the end of 2030. So more product changes will follow in the next years.

Eames, as Director of the Eames Office and grandson of Charles and Ray Eames you have been part of this material change project from the beginning and instantly became a supporter of the idea. Looking back at Charles and Ray Eames’s approach to design development, what do you think they would say about this transition to a new material?

ED: Post-consumer plastic previously had only one place to go: the landfill site. But that same waste is now employed to create an object that will stay in use for generations. In other words, Vitra’s utilisation of this material in an Eames classic is helping to break the chain of waste. Charles and Ray knew that in the modern world, change was a constant. Charles even said: in order to be really secure, you must be secure in change. They would have undoubtedly applauded the focus on sustainability. In the past decades when our generation has been running and operating the Eames Office, I have come to see how important another form of authenticity was to Charles and Ray. And this is the notion that the chair that the Eameses were really designing is the chair that Vitra makes tomorrow.

As it happened, the Eameses’ passion for ongoing and thoughtful improvement of designs that were already in production led to special partnerships with trusted manufacturers. When Charles and Ray were alive, they were the advocates for their designs in dialogue with their manufacturers – led by gifted folk such as Rolf Fehlbaum of Vitra. This system of continuous design dialogue ensured that each product leaving the factory gave users the true experience of function, aesthetics, quality – and not least sustainability – that Charles and Ray intended.

Do you think Charles and Ray had their own kind of environmental mission?

ED: Indeed. They did not put it exactly in these words, but Charles and Ray Eames’s design approach was an environmental mission itself. The couple’s method of exploring real needs and finding solutions through an experimental process of trial and error distinguishes their work from designs that concentrate solely on new forms and trends. That is the reason why Eames products continue to be relevant while form-based designs fade once the next new fashion emerges. From my perspective, this important lesson of longevity represents the cornerstone of Vitra’s approach to sustainability.

My grandparents were interested in good solutions. And if they found a good solution, they continued to work with and develop it. For instance, the Eames Shell Chair family started with an armchair and was followed by a side chair. Several bases were developed in various materials for diverse purposes (stacking, rocking, lounging, pivoting) and could each be paired with the different shell models. That systems approach was totally new in the 1950s.

The Eameses’ design approach is linked with trial-and-error processes, where some ideas might fail while others prove successful. Room for failure is important in any new design development, including the testing of new materials. Thomas, what kinds of challenges did you encounter in the development of the new Eames Plastic Chair in recycled polypropylene?

TS: First, it took a long time to find a partner for post-consumer plastic as there was no established process on the market. Several of our competitors work with post-industrial plastic, but at Vitra we wanted to use post-consumer plastic wherever possible. These two environmental approaches are very different, and the latter is certainly the most sustainable solution because we are recycling and returning materials to the cycle of use. We conducted a long phase of stability tests as the recycled material has a different strength and slightly more variance in the physical properties. The assessments also included a thorough phase of UV resistance tests. Finally, we had to produce several hundred shells before we finally found a solution that lived up to our high demands when it comes to quality.

Compared to virgin material, to what extent will the use of recycled post-consumer polypropylene really make a difference?

TS: The process of using recycled material naturally raises the issue of the carbon footprint. Early in the process we calculated the actual difference between using virgin material and post-consumer plastic. The post-consumer material releases less than half the CO2 emissions of virgin material.

Eames and Thomas, you have both tested the new chair in post-consumer recycled polypropylene. Do you sense any difference in comfort and quality?

ED: The only difference is visual, and very subtle at that. Due to the composition of the recycled materials, the different colour versions of the seat shells are interspersed with tiny specks of pigment, and from my perspective it adds a special charm to the chair.
TS: I totally agree.

Following this important environmental step by Vitra, what new sustainability-related projects will you be working on in the future?

TS: For upholstered furniture we are looking for alternatives to the existing polyurethane foam and wish to use an ever-greater percentage of recycled textiles. In general, we aim for materials that can be easily separated at the end of the product’s life, like mono materials. And we have also initiated a take-back programme, which will be rolled out further, plus we have opened Vitra Circle Stores around Europe. All in all, our primary focus is on the materials utilised in the technical cycle – to create a circular system.
In 2022 the Vitra Design Museum opened the exhibition ‘Plastic: Remaking Our World’. This exhibition offers a critical and differentiated reassessment of the contemporary use of plastic and it has since been showcased at other international design museums. The exhibition is currently on show at the National Museum of Singapore until 23 June 2024.

Publication date: 12.4.2024
Author: Stine Liv Buur
Images: all © Vitra except images 1 and 6 © Eames Office, LLC