Smile Plastics: Circular by Design

Can you tell us how Smile Plastics came to be? What is it that Smile Plastics does and does differently?

Smile Plastics itself dates back to the early 90s making decorative panels from recycled plastics. The business closed down in 2010 and my partner Rosalie and I took the reins in 2014, evolving the business to its present day.

Today, Smile Plastics are European leaders in producing supersized 100% recycled and 100% recyclable 3 x 1.2m decorative plastic panels of the highest consistent quality using the lowest amounts of energy. As it stands, our products have a carbon footprint 60% less than conventional post-consumer recycled plastic products. The mission is to change people’s perceptions around waste via innovation – to use art and technology to unlock the hidden potential in recycling, and open their eyes to the unexpected beauty of scrap. In doing so, we hope to engage people in valuing our resources & to throw away less.

How are we different? Our IP is over 20 years in the making and whilst our materials look amazing in themselves, the technology that goes behind processing them to ensure the polymers are optimised for complete circularity over and over again is incredibly stringent. 

Circularity has had a big shift of attention in the last few years. Did you know about the concept of a Circular Economy when you launched?

When we launched the terminology for a Circular Economy was certainly not where it is today, and that change in itself is great to have witnessed. I’ve always been fascinated by materials and how they evolve over time. Our relationship with materials is a complex one and people often don’t see the value of the materials they use beyond their present function.

At the time of launching we were different in our Circular approach to the mass of linear models and for us it presented a far better approach to building an economy, fundamentally embedded in the idea of eliminating waste and working in harmony with nature.  There are some really fantastic sustainable materials and circular models out there now where designers don’t need to compromise on quality or aesthetics to meet their needs.  

What are some of the challenges that you have had since you’ve been in business?

Raw material supply to match the level of orders we have is a constant challenge and developing our own pioneering manufacturing technology came with a level of challenges we hadn’t previously experienced. Since Covid, I should imagine it is the same for most companies, raw material supply has increased dramatically, which is great for the recycling economy and tricky for us at the same time. As we expand, securing a skilled workforce has become our latest challenge.

What are some of the highlights?

We have had the opportunity to work on some fantastic projects that have challenged every aspect of the creative journey, from material development to fabrication. This may be working with completely new materials or innovating our processes in order to achieve very specific material aesthetics. We are lucky enough to work with some really exciting brands who stretch and challenge us constantly, embracing all aspects of the material development process and enjoying that small element of unpredictability in the final materials. 

Certainly designing and commissioning our first full supersized production line in 2020 was a highlight moment.


Can you paint a picture of a typical day behind the scenes at SP HQ

At the moment production starts at 7am, so they are first through the door. The office comes into action from 8am and then the entire site is a hive of activity until 11pm when the production piece finishes for the day.

Typically, we are undertaking the full process of producing panels, cutting, fabrication and finishing every day. Quality checking has to happen at every stage to meet client expectations, so various pieces of recycled plastic are circulated around the team depending upon the client. We all love a peak at new materials or custom products. Front of house, there could be photoshoots, a wealth of meetings with internal and external stakeholders; whether planning events, new products, discussing queries, training or getting sign off on items. This is alongside Customer Service dealing with enquiries and securing the customer journey from end to end. It’s busy, varied and often changeable. 

What are the next 5 years looking like for Smile?

At the moment we have one small microfactory on the Gower in West Wales but we are looking to start building a distributed network of microfactories around the world taking local waste streams and transforming them into panels and products for local markets around the world. It’s a very exciting time as we rapidly grow.


Is there a goal where you feel the business has succeeded or fulfilled its mission? 

That’s an interesting question. There wouldn’t be one singular instance as we see this as a journey that will always evolve. However, there have been two moments that stand out; a while back a customer loved our products so much and everything it stood for, they just wanted to hug it. Then recently at LDF21, we were in a panel discussion with long established companies championing natural materials for a sustainable future and our plastic commitment and approach convinced them to explore a whole new product line addressing, in their opinion, the unavoidable need to utilise recycled materials. Those were great moments.

This is a great example for us to learn more about other brands and businesses out there working within the circular economy - Are there any businesses you want to shout about? 

We love circularity and always champion other products and brands we’ve been following or using. Over the past year, I’ve got quite into Toast Ale. A London brewery crafting beers from discarded bread. Of course this could stem from our ongoing love and partnership with Silo London, the first zero waste restaurant in the world. Recently, Rosalie was introduced via our investor group, the Green Angel Syndicate to Buy Me Once an online shopping forum and API which offers sustainable alternatives that you buy once and keep. Not entirely circular in concept, but certainly addressing throw away items. 

 

Can you share any tricks or tips that you do to lighten your carbon footprint or improve your sustainability in work life? 

We’re true foodies, so buy local from the market or the odd fisherman who goes past the factory and love batch cooking. There’s not really any local outlets at the factory to buy food, so this certainly helps our carbon footprint. We’ve teamed up with a local MRF to manage our waste at the factory and recycle as much as we can. Any small step at work to encourage recycling or valuing the materials we consume is a bonus to the carbon detriment, so we teamed up with a local MRF to manage our waste.

View our KANKAN + Smile Plastic gift set here