When entrepeneur Edward Douglas Miller dreamed up the idea of making pencils from recycled plastic cups not only did he have to create a new manufacturing process but it was also important to him that the product carried an important message about sustainability. Remarkable collaborated with a specialist university research unit and external design agencies to come up with a brand identity that captured the essence of the company's values. Since its launch Remarkable has sold more than 100m pencils and has achieved listings with numerous high profile retailers.
In 1996 Edward Douglas Miller‘s career had reached a crossroads. After studying farming and the economy at the Royal Agricultural College, he had drifted in and out of numerous jobs, including a spell working on a game ranch in Kenya. In the mid ‘90s he was working on the factory floor of a recycling company - having originally joined the company’s accounts department - where he learned how to process and recycle plastics. The experience proved inspirational.
While toiling away, Douglas Miller dreamed up the idea of producing a mass-market item made from material recycled from products we use and throw away every day. He wanted to take some of the waste generated in an office environment and turn it into a product that had a longer lifespan and could be sold back to the office. But this time the second life item would carry an important message about sustainability.
It wasn’t long before he identified a waste material that fit the bill. ‘There has always been an aspiration to recycle as much waste paper as possible in the office environment but around 3.5m plastic cups are collected for recycling each week and that was a massive resource to me,’ explains Douglas Miller. ‘The question was how could we turn that in to a product that can be used in the office and market it as something that came out of that environment in the first place.’
He hit upon the idea of transforming each plastic water-cooler cup collected into the outer casing for a pencil, something that had never been done before. This meant that he would have to create a sustainable manufacturing process from scratch. Douglas Miller knew from the off that it was also crucial that he got the design of the product right as it needed to convey the all-important sustainability message that lay at the heart of his plans.
Design was integral to the whole thing explains Edward Douglas Miller
The design of the product needed to be conventional looking but it should also have flair and uniqueness. As the company was a one-man band at the time, Douglas Miller had to draw up the product design himself - something that he had no prior experience of. Despite this lack of design knowledge he had a clear vision of how the product should look.
‘I knew that I had to put the personalisation of the waste into the product design because this would give people the association and tangible feel of what can be done so they would continue to recycle. It would also stimulate people to think that if we can turn a plastic cup into a pencil, what else can we do? It was entirely down to how to communicate and use waste resource in an effective and stimulating manner to raise awareness of how people can recycle.’
It took two years of research and development to produce something that Douglas Miller was happy with but when the Remarkable Pencil was finally launched it was an instant hit. The company was even invited to set up its production line in the Millennium Dome.
But the design story doesn’t end in 2000. While the company’s sales were strong Douglas Miller wanted Remarkable to break out of its niche green-consumer markets and move its recycled stationery into the mainstream. So in 2003 Remarkable began collaborating with Kingston University’s Recycling by Design Research Unit and brand design consultancy Dragon Brands, which had a strong track record in green branding. Will Harris, who had previously worked with O2 and Orange, was also brought into the mix.
This design team developed a brand identity that captures the essence of Remarkable’s values. A number of vibrant and colourful themed product ranges were developed with new straplines such as ‘Turning junk into something Remarkable ‘ and ‘We used to be paper cups ‘, introduced.
The new-look Remarkable launched at the beginning of 2004 and continued to go from strength-to-strength achieving listings in leading multiple retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s as well as being sold in Selfridges, Liberty, the Eden Project and the Design Museum.
Today Remarkable churns out around 8m pencils per year and Douglas Miller estimates that to date more than 100m pencils have been produced. The product range has been significantly bolstered over recent years with mouse mats and pencil cases crafted from recycled tyres and recycled notepads produced using FSC certified paper.
To accommodate this step up in production in 2005 the company moved from a 9,000 sq ft factory in south west London to a new 40,000 sq ft Remarkable factory in Worcester. Sustainability was once again at the heart of the company’s ethos - the new factory was converted to run off recycled cooking oil.
Douglas Miller is a firm believer that the planet is unsustainable unless significant changes are made to the way products are manufactured. But if more responsible manufacturers like Remarkable emerge, creating sustainable products, he also believes that the planet stands a fighting chance.
Kingston University’s Recycling by Design Research Unit
The unit, which forms part of the Sustainable Design Research Centre at Kingston University, London, was launched in November 2001 with a remit to research and develop resources to assist designers and entrepreneurs to create markets for products incorporating UK recycled materials. Since an initial one-year grant of £97,947 was awarded by Biffaward, the unit has received more than £250,000 in funding to enable it to continue its research and knowledge transfer activities.
The unit is headed by Anne Chick, a reader in sustainable design at Kingston University, who is also adjunct assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary, Canada.
For more information visit www.recyclingbydesign.org.uk
How to make a Remarkable Pencil
- Recycled plastic cups (1 per pencil)
- Graphite (enough to fill the middle bit)
- 1 x pencil-making machine
- water-bath (cooling tank)
- Tim (he makes them)
- Secret ingredient (makes plastic behave like wood)
- Sharpening machine
- Collect as many plastic cups as possible and stop them from going to landfill.
- Wash off all the tea and coffee and shred the cups into tiny pieces.
- Preheat pencil machine to 180°C. This should take about 30 minutes.
- Mix some of the plastic cups into the graphite and pour into the pencil machine.
- Take the rest of the plastic cup material and pour into the other side of the pencil machine. Watch closely while all the material is melted (technical term: extruded) and brought together to create one long pencil (this is another secret bit). Ensure there is always a continuous length of pencil leaving the machine.
- Allow the pencil to cool and harden as it passes through the water-bath (cooling tank)
- Cut long pencil into smaller standard pencil size lengths.
- Sharpen and leave until ready for printing.