New Making: Plastic Bottle Marble Run

The project started with a site visit to the Edinburgh Remakery’s warehouse, where one of their repair technicians gave us an introduction to their business, and its activities. Based in leith, the Remakery repairs and up-cycles products, and sells them back at affordable prices. Additionally, they provide classes, teaching people repair skills, and offer free repair workshops during the week.

Having visited their warehouse, and having seen their inventory of broken items, it became apparent that although there were plenty of possible avenues for re-purposing, these were not products that the average consumer would have access to in bulk. Instead, i intended for the design to be more relatable and accessible to people, in the hope of encouraging and inspiring them.

Every minute, one million plastic bottles are bought around the world. The accrescent ubiquity of plastic bottles in our lives has dire consequences on our environment. As major Asian markets such as India, Indonesia, and China dramatically increase their consumption of bottled water, the production of single-use bottles has quickly surpassed our recycling capabilities. With less than half of plastic bottles being collected for recycling, the proper disposal of bottles still remains the main issue we must tackle.

Inspired by what Ernesto Oroza calls “technologically disobedient” objects, the design set about to re-purpose standardised PET bottles, as they are commonly found, into a toy. Borrowing from Cuban hacktivists and the broader DIY culture,  the design sought to critique the transience of mass produced plastics through its materiality and language. The design also sought to visually highlight the ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness involved in re-purposing. 

Prior research into sustainable toys shows a majority of items produced from recycled or retrieved wood. One company, Green Toys, uses milk jugs as materials for their designs, and incorporates existing elements of the package such as handles into their designs. Marble runs are also incredibly popular online, but apart from commercial alternatives, home-made marble runs tend to be quiet wasteful and environmentally unsustainable; especially when made from paper. As a thermoplastic, PET bottles shrink back to their original parison form when heated. A tube like structure, it provided the perfect medium through which marbles could roll, while also retaining a desired degree of malleability and transparency. Very little heat is actually required to shrink or reshape bottles, and a powerful hair dryer or heat gun will work.

Heat gun and bent pieces

While the bottles would shrink differently depending on their size and manufacturer, evenly heating them provided the same parison like form to work from. By stressing certain areas under heat, the parison forms can subsequently be bent or curved. This is a lot more efficient then trying to bend the bottles before shrinking, as they tend to fold over and not curve smoothly.

Curved bottle

By cutting the bottom ends off and slotting the bottles into each other, strong joints can be achieved as the outer bottles are shrunk onto the inner ones; a process similar to using heat shrink tubing. The only issue with heating PET bottles is that, under too intense heat, it can melt/burn, releasing toxic fumes. While melted, parts of the bottle may be “welded” together. 

Heat shrunk joint

Building around a frame facilitated the material exploration, providing a scale for the design and a support around which it could be made. Some of the bottle pieces were built around the frame, using hot glue to stick them down. Others were attached together through heat-shrunk joints, or by using melted portions as adhesives. The design of the marble courses themselves was fluid in that it was largely led by trial and testing. After each bottle or section was put in place, the run would be tested, determining the best position for the following piece. Once assembled, sections can be re-heated, correcting any folds or flaws obstructing the path of the marbles.

Easily upgradable, flexible in design, and easily recycled, the design articulates an alternative to the consumption of commercial plastic toys. One where freely and abundantly sourced materials can easily be recycled and re-purposed into more sustainable products. Part of it’s aesthetic, the materiality of the design and the unpolished visual language serves as a reminder of the social and environmental context, while also embodying the resourcefulness of certain populations with restricted access to goods. The dichotomy and combination between function and aesthetics goes to show that, in regards to recycling, we are only limited by our imaginations, and our perception of materials and their applicability.