Plastics are given a variety complicated names – polystyrene, polyethylene, polyurethane, polyamide and polyethilentereftalate. Some of them even have cute nicknames – such as PET.

Yet the essence of all of them remains the same: utterly ungreen. The break-through invention of the 20th century, the multifaceted material that revolutionised the world, is still struggling to become eco-friendly and has had, to date, very low sustainability. 

In addition to the high ecological costs of production, one of the biggest problems in regard to plastics is the fact that a lot of people around the world leave it behind, literally.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean contains a high concentration of plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that were thrown in seas or rivers, ending up trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre – and is now an area that is estimated to be as big as Texas.

While plastic never dissolves, it does break down into tiny polymers. So, as all those millions of drink bottles and shopping bags are not visible from satellite, the Garbage continent is defined as “an area in which the mass of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly higher than average”. Along with this ghost-like enemy, many other less invisible ones also pollute our seas.

And it doesn’t stop at the Pacific. The Indian and the Atlantic oceans, as well as the Mediterranean, Baltic and Northern seas, can all boast their own plastic islands.

“Some of them are absolutely enormous,” says Renato Zanovello, CEO of Electrolux Floor Care in Italy, who, as part of the company initiative to go really green, has actually started putting that rubbish to work.

“It’s absurd to see so much plastic killing fish and sealife like corals and being aware of the fact that recycled plastic is actually still extremely hard to find for use in industrial purposes.”

Considering both of these issues simultaneously – the ecological problem and the difficulty in accessing recycled plastics for industry – Electrolux decided to invest in a stunt-like initiative. “We called it Vac From The Sea,” says Zanovello.

“It’s still in a concept phase but its purpose is to focus people’s attention on the problem of plastic garbage and on the major possibilities that there are to actually recycle them and reuse them – for instance, to make vacuum cleaners”.

Thousands of people supported Electrolux in this initiative, which took place in Kahuku Beach in Hawaii, on Phi Phi Island, Thailand; at St Cyr Sur Mer near Marseille, France and on the Baltic and Northern seas, at Sandhamn Island near Stockholm and in Skagerrak and Ramsvik. All these people joined forces to pick up rubbish.

Teams of technical experts, specialising in the collection and the recovery of plastic from the sea, worked together with the volunteers, recruited via a dedicated blog – www.electrolux.com/vacfromthesea – and a Facebook page. Many of them were supporters of the Surfrider Foundation Europe, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the requalification of the coasts.

“It’s amazing how many responded to our call,” says Zanovello. “In the Sandhamn Peninsula, on the Baltic Sea, there were literally dozens and dozens of people who wanted to give a hand.”

In just two hours, the groups collected one cubic metre of rubbish, most of which was made of plastic. The result was a series of concepts in vacuum cleaners manufactured using recycled plastics coming from this gigantic global collection – vacuum cleaners from the sea.

With so many initiatives focused on grabbing the public’s attention on the green issue, this one by Electrolux would not have turned into news if it wasn’t backed up. Stunt aside, Electrolux already manufactures eco vacuum cleaners.

The new Green Range that uses fifty-five to seventy per cent recycled plastics and zero PVC, and are up to fifty per cent more energy efficient compared to the standard 2000 watt vacuum cleaners that are currently on the market.

The accessories are also made from easy-to-separate, recycled materials such as plastic and aluminium. Additionally, the bag is 100 per cent biodegradable, as it’s made of PLA, a bio-plastic issued from maize.

In concrete terms, using two kilograms of recycled plastics as it is for the UltraSilencer Green vacuum cleaner, means saving two litres of oil and eighty litres of water, which are the standard amounts required to produce two kilos of non-recycled plastic.

If all vacuum cleaners sold in Europe followed the same approach, the total saving would be 126 000 barrels of oil and 1.6 million cubic metres of water. When producing recycled plastics, companies use roughly ninety per cent less water and eighty to ninety per cent less energy than if they were manufacturing new material.

“This means that the Green Range uses 0.5 to one watt less than traditional vacuum cleaners per hour of use. Should we use a green vacuum cleaner for ten years, we would have saved enough energy to keep a sixty watt lightbulb lit up day and night for 253 days,” Electrolux states.

“People have learnt to recognise that an apple that does not look perfect, but is from a guaranteed organic farm may well be better than a stunner from a supermarket stall,” says Dino Baggio, director of the executive global technology centre at Electrolux, explaining why, if the company is already doing so well in terms of using recycled plastics, a concept such as Vac From The Sea was envisaged.

“In the same way, they now have to accept that if we want to move forward – to go beyond seventy per cent recycled materials and reach 100 per cent – they also have to get rid of the idea that sparkly is better, that smooth, even surfaces are a guarantee of quality.

"With this project, we started to suggest new looks, textures and forms so that people start to accept this idea and also feel more intensively about this issue,” he says.

“If you make something completely out of recycled plastics it will never look perfect,” says Baggio. “But just like an organic apple it might end up tasting a lot better.” 

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