Gregg Buchbinder, the President and CEO of Emeco, brought a passion for sustainability to the company.
The story began a few years ago when Coca-Cola reached out to find partners to come up with ideas for reusing the plastic bottles in which some of company’s products, along with those of many other companies, are packaged.
“We wanted to demonstrate that something made of recycled plastic can be high-quality, long-lasting and desirable,” says Kelli Sogar, Senior Global Licensing Manager at Coca-Cola. In the surprising partnership with Emeco, “the two companies discovered a shared passion for design and commitment to the environment.”
Emeco was recommended as a potential partner by Paola Antonelli, the senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Antonelli shared Emeco’s own strange story with Coca-Cola: The firm was founded in 1944 to supply a U.S Navy contract for a light, durable chair to be used on ships and bases as part of the war effort. The chairs would be made of aluminum, a metal whose smelting and manufacture had been the focus of the aircraft industry, part of the huge “arsenal of democracy” of World War II.
Finding New RelevanceAfter the war, the military and other government agencies continued to order the chair — named simply 1006 (pronounced 10-o-six) — for bases and institutions around the globe, but they ordered fewer and fewer. And there was virtually no replacement market for the almost-indestructible aluminum chairs.
When Gregg Buchbinder bought the company in the late 1990s, it was on its last legs. But he noticed something interesting: They were getting small orders for the chair from unusual places — The Paramount Hotel in New York (which Philippe Starck was redesigning for hotelier Ian Schrager) and Giorgio Armani in Milan. Architects and designers had rediscovered the chair and found it to be timeless, basic and iconic. Born out of wartime necessity, it was the Jeep of chairs — a design as enduring as the chairs themselves.
A Natural Focus on SustainabilityBuchbinder decided to double down on what Emeco did well and make sustainable reuse the company’s mission. He had spent a great deal of his California childhood on the beach so preserving nature was important to him — and he believed a new role for Emeco should be making a positive impact on the environment. The 1006 Navy chair, as it was widely known, employed aluminum scrap and the goal was to not only use waste material, but to consume as little energy as possible — it takes 95% less energy to use recycled aluminum — and generate minimum waste in building the durable and beautiful chairs.
Buchbinder forged a number of high-profile alliances with the designers and architects who appreciated the chair: Philippe Starck, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Konstantin Grcic and BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk. But when Coca-Cola came to him in 2006, he says, he feared dealing with such a huge corporation and was worried any project would become a mere promotion. Then, looking at history, he was reassured. He found something common in the heritage of the otherwise very different companies.
Emeco had grown up in an era of wartime scrap drives and the recycling born of patriotism. Its chair was deployed around the world, where American service people were stationed. Coca-Cola, too, was known for its long history of reuse —most notably of the classic glass bottle. It also shared the 1940s patriotic spirit, specifically the 1941 promise from Coca-Cola leader Robert Woodruff, who said that any person in uniform should get a bottle of Coke for 5 cents, wherever he was and whatever it costs the company.
So Buchbinder realized that “the guy who was sitting on an Emeco chair in those days was probably also drinking a Coca-Cola.”
Dealing With The Challenges of UpcyclingThe partnership meant Emeco had to deal with the challenges of reusing the plastic PET, which are much greater than reusing aluminum. “Ninety-five percent of all aluminum ever refined is still in use,” says Buchbinder. “That is because it’s expensive to refine aluminum and relatively inexpensive to recycle it.” But PET is different. It is relatively simple to use PET to make products like t-shirts and carpeting, but very difficult to upcycle PET into a structural chair.
The process involves much more than simply melting and remolding, as it depends on the final product. So it took years for chemists, along with Emeco’s Product Chief Magnus Breitling and others, to get the right formula for the new material, called rPET.
This stool, featuring the classic Emeco Navy Chair bottom shape, was made with reclaimed barn wood carved by Amish craftsmen. It is from a new collaboration between Emeco and Japanese design firm Nendo. Coca-Cola also had a collaboration with Nendo to create tableware out of recycled Coke bottles.
Texture and color were critical. “At first we hoped that the look would be some sort of translucent material with lots of bright sparkling colors floating in it,” says Buchbinder. That was not to be. Only a few colors were practical. “For texture we tried to stay away from the shiny slick look of some recycled products. We wanted something that looked classic not trendy.”
Among the manufacturing hurdles, Sogar notes, was “creating an rPET formula that was strong enough for commercial furniture production required specialists at BASF and Emeco to develop an advanced molding technique.”
When the new product is something like a planter or waste receptacle, the demands for the material are less critical, Buchbinder notes. “But a chair has to be sturdy.”
Finally, in 2010, the finished product was ready: an attractive version of the original Emeco chair made of rPET. In keeping with the company’s use of numerical names and the fact that each chair was made of 111 recycled Coca-Cola bottles, it was named the 111 Navy Chair and was introduced at the Milan Furniture Fair One of the colors available, by happy coincidence, was Coca-Cola red. And that red that turned out to be one of the most practical and durable colors for the chair.
What Other Companies Can Learn From The 111 Navy Chair
Buchbinder immediately began receiving calls about the project, and he says he learned a number of lessons that could be useful to other businesses that want to be more environmentally aware.
Also, don't be leery of working with a large corporation. “I thought our small company would be lost beside them and that it would be difficult to find the right people in such a large company,” he says. “But in fact, the opposite turns out to be true. Because it is so large, a company like Coca-Cola is in contact with many other partners and suppliers, and those suppliers give first attention to anyone sent to them by larger customers, like Coca-Cola."
Buchbinder believes the power of example can magnify the practical effect of programs like the 111 Navy Chair. “So far we've used 12 million bottles but that just puts a dent in reducing the problem,” he says. “But if we make it cool to use waste materials and inspire others, we can make a more significant impact. It is an exciting time for companies like ours.”
The partnership behind the chair may help change the way the bottles are viewed, says Sogar. “At the Coca-Cola Company, we envision a world in which our packaging is no longer seen as waste, but as a valuable resource.”
New Sustainability ProjectsA recent eco-friendly collaboration for Emeco is with Nendo, a Japanese design firm. The companies met when Nendo ordered several 111 Navy Chairs for a project in Tokyo. (Nendo, whose principal designer is Oki Sato, had previously worked with Coca-Cola on repurposing glass into artistic tableware called ”The Bottleware".)
Now, Nendo has created 'The SU Collection” for Emeco, a new line of stools and tables constructed largely of reclaimed or recycled materials. The stools use the seat bottom shape of the 1006 Navy Chair and are made from three different materials:
The line made its debut at the Milan Furniture Fair in April and also at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May.
The name of the collection, SU, comes from a Japanese term that means basic and simple—which could also define the beauty of the original 1006 Navy Chair and the company's sustainability-focused design aesthetic today.
This stool, featuring the classic Emeco Navy Chair bottom shape, was made with reclaimed barn wood carved by Amish craftsmen. It is from a new collaboration between Emeco and Japanese design firm Nendo.
Coca-Cola also had a collaboration with Nendo to create tableware out of recycled Coke bottles.
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