Plastic’s fantastic. But it’s also very, very anti-ecological. With the exception of PET, most petrol-derived plastics are very costly to recycle (both financially and ecologically, due to the production of dioxin during the process) and, as most consumers don’t differentiate between PET and other plastics anyway, what’s the point of recycling them?

Yet plastic is – actually – fantastic. Highly versatile, it can be moulded into virtually any shape; it is extremely light yet also impact resistant; and, in the last few decades, it has turned into a very attractive and often even precious material.

Beside bio-plastics, which are thankfully increasingly in use (such as MaterBi or PLA), another material has recently come to the attention of the design community.

Forget about soggy, heat-vulnerable bags – this material has the texture, quality and even the smell of wood, yet it can be worked like plastic. Unlike the latter, though, it is fully recyclable and one hundred per cent biodegradable.

It sounds like a dream yet it is a definite reality. Its (very unsexy) commercial name is Arboform® – mostly known as ‘liquid wood’ – and it was invented more than ten years ago in Germany at the Fraunhofer Institut für Chemische Technologie.

Its main components are lignin and natural fibres with some additives and it can be produced using various kinds of lignin from processes and sources, natural fibres (flax, hemp, sisal and wood) and natural additives (plasticisers, pigments, processing agents, etc).

Brittle, but also stiff, and featuring excellent mechanical qualities, liquid wood can be processed as a thermoplastic material, which means it could potentially be used (for instance) for electronic products and allow much lower recycling costs, as well as dramatically decrease the impact on the environment.

Yet one of the first design applications of this astonishing material was not issued from a technology giant nor by a large furniture company (despite the fact that Magis is said to be working with the likes of Zaha Hadid and Jasper Morrison in the development of a series of chairs in liquid wood that will likely be presented in months to come), but from the creativity of an Italian designer, working in collaboration with a research lab in the North of Italy, Politec.

In fact, this year during the FuoriSalone in Milano, Romolo Stanco will introduce the first designed object in liquid wood. Its name is GreenLantern and it was designed and developed with the idea of becoming a ‘manifesto’ on the potential of liquid wood. GreenLantern is a vase and, at the same time, a lamp.

The idea of coupling two functions stems from the desire to develop habits inspired by a sustainable lifestyle and, in essence, to tell the world, in a poetical way, about the potential of liquid wood.

First, the shape of the object is defined through a very curvaceous body – a form that would be unobtainable using traditional wood and that clearly illustrates what can be obtained through injection-moulding Arboform.

Second, the LEDs, which shine on the plant, are fed by the plant itself, its electrical battery being charged through the electro-chemical energy naturally issued by the plant during its vital functions.

“GreenLantern asks the user to understand its multiple, complex and almost contradictory nature. A nature that is similar to that of a living creature,” says Stanco.

Thus, it provides us with food for thought on the impact that objects have on the planet’s life as a whole and on the necessity to think, design and live – as sustainability dictates – in terms of systems and cycles. 

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