In 2006, Emeco partnered with the Coca-Cola Company to recreate the iconic chair using rPET (in essence, recycled plastic bottles). Judging by its reception at the 2010 Milan Furniture Fair, the 111 Navy chair—so named for the number of plastic bottled required to fabricate each seat—has an extremely bright future ahead.
Grind and Sort
The story of the 111 Navy Chair starts in the New United Resource Recovery Corporation (NURRC) recycling plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where eight to ten trailer truckloads of PET bales—each measuring 80 cubic feet and consisting of 20,000 bottles—arrive for processing every weekday.
The bales, which have traveled from municipalities east of the Mississippi River, are loaded onto conveyor belts for sorting. Virtually everything involved in the PET reclamation process at NURRC—including the water used to wash the bottles—is recycled. Non-PET materials, such as polypropylene caps, are sold to other facilities. ; by-products are reused, such as ethylene glycol, then used in automobile antifreeze.
Barring any snafus in the sorting process—bowling balls and small engines have been spotted on the conveyor belt—the bottles are sorted, ground, sent through dry and wet washes (which transforms them into rinse flake), and then sorted by color.
The UnPET Process
The rinse flake undergoes NURRC's patented UnPET process, in which the surface of the PET material is removed (depolymerized) and the remaining compound is "roasted" to remove any volitive organic content, rendering it usable for food grade packaging (much of the rPET is used to make new bottles and other products). "Think of the process like an onion," explains Lawson "Boo" Hayes, CFO of the plant. "You pull an onion out of the ground and it's covered in dirt. You shake it and some of the dirt comes off. You peel a little more off and you get a pearl of an onion. That's basically what we do with the PET here: It comes looking dark and dirty, and we literally etch off the outer layers to remove all impurities." The company processes 100 million pounds of PET bales each year, seven days a week, making the facility one of the global leaders in PET recycling.
In the Mold
By the time the rPET compound reaches the cavernous 270,000-square-foot Bemis Manufacturing facility in the rolling Blue Ridge foothills of North Carolina—a meticulous industrial wonderland humming, both literally and figuratively, with energy—the rPET has already made a trip to BASF in Tennessee, where it is combined with glass fiber and color pigment. Amid hydraulic machines creating components for garden supplies, construction equipment, and school buses, each 111 Navy chair begins life as 13 pounds of rPET plastic pellets, which are melted down and injected into the chair mold, a multiton device that functions like a gigantic waffle iron. Once the mold is loaded, the chair is formed, hollowed out via gas injection, then tempered and cooled. The entire process takes approximately three minutes. Following the initial in-mold cooling, the chair is removed by a robot and presented to a factory worker.
The worker smooths any imperfections before manually installing the H-brace (created on another mold) as well as the feet.
This final laying on of hands, labor intensive though it may be, is the hallmark of Emeco's Navy chair legacy. Watching the technician clean the rough points on each chair, one is struck by the hybrid nature of this project, in which 21st-century recycling technology is married to a handmade aesthetic, producing an object both old and new—in more ways than one.
The 111 Navy chairs are exact replicas of the aluminum originals, down to the faux weld points on the backside; Emeco knew that Navy-chair devtees would accept nothing less. "At the Milan Furniture Fair," says Daniel Fogelson, Emeco's vice president of sales and marketing, "the first thing our clients did was turn the chair around and look for those [weld] marks, just to make sure we hadn't screwed it up." And the company hasn't.
Folklorist, musician, and writer Michael C. Taylor currently teaches at the University of North Carolina.