Cleanstone is attractive, durable and sustainable signage created from waste

New Zealand-based Critical has launched Cleanstone, a unique rigid sheet product for great-looking, durable and fully recyclable signage, that is created from 100% plastic waste

King Charles Visiting Critical in New Zealand
King Charles visiting Critical in New Zealand

Critical’s journey began over a decade ago when Rui Peng, then an architect, faced an all-too-familiar dilemma while working on a project to fit out the New Zealand airport. He had to choose between aesthetically pleasing but unsustainable materials and sustainable but basic-looking and less durable options. This challenge highlighted a critical gap in the market for high-quality, sustainable building and signage materials and led to him founding Critical.

Eye on Display spoke to Rui, co-founder and CEO of Critical in New Zealand, about the company’s mission, its flagship product Cleanstone, and the impact this is having on the signage industry.

“Critical is an innovative indigenous green technology company dedicated to transforming hard-to-recycle plastics into high-quality, sustainable building and signage materials,” Rui explains. The company’s flagship product, Cleanstone panels, epitomises this mission, addressing environmental concerns while meeting the aesthetic and functional needs of modern construction and signage.

Critical is transforming hard-to-recycle plastics into high-quality, sustainable building and signage materials
Critical is transforming hard-to-recycle plastics into high-quality, sustainable building and signage materials

Creating durable and aesthetic panels from hard-to-recycle plastics

Critical offers designers, architects, brands, and businesses sustainable materials that do not compromise on aesthetics or durability. Rui highlights a stark reality, “The construction industry contributes to over 20% of global carbon emissions, with a significant portion from interior fit-outs that typically have a lifespan of only five years.” Critical aims to rewrite this narrative by creating durable, visually appealing panels from recycled plastics, significantly reducing the industry’s environmental footprint.

While initially designed for construction, Cleanstone panels have proven to be highly versatile, finding applications in interior fit-outs, furniture, decorative wall panels, joinery, cabinetry, and more. Rui explains, “We are also exploring the use of Cleanstone in signage, offering a sustainable and durable alternative to traditional materials like plywood and acrylic.”

Cleanstone panels result from seven years of research and development, showcasing Critical’s commitment to innovation and sustainability. “These panels, crafted from hard-to-recycle plastics, are designed to be durable and attractive, appealing to designers, architects, and signmakers while being environmentally friendly,” Rui notes.

Critical is aiming to clean up the ocean and land with beautiful, durable, endlessly recyclable building panels, made from 100% contaminated plastic waste.
Critical is aiming to clean up the ocean and land with beautiful, durable, endlessly recyclable building panels, made from 100% contaminated plastic waste

Surviving the destruction of a tornado

Developing Cleanstone panels was not without challenges. Rui recalls, “The first five to six years were bootstrapped, and in late 2020 to 2021, we raised funds from friends and family. We set up a pilot factory with an initial investment of over half a million dollars.” However, a tornado destroyed the factory in 2021, causing significant damage and financial strain.

The company rebuilt with community support and relaunched at the start of 2022. Rui’s determination, influenced by his background as the son of immigrants who faced many hardships, played a crucial role in overcoming these challenges. The company’s acceptance into a startup accelerator in New Zealand provided further support and development opportunities.

Cleanstone’s sustainability based on advanced material science

The recycled plastics used for Cleanstone panels come from various sources, including businesses, other recyclers, and waste infrastructure. “These plastics are often mixed and heavily contaminated, making them challenging to recycle through conventional methods,” Rui explains. Critical has developed a proprietary system that processes these materials and maintains a carbon-negative footprint.

“Plastics, inherently durable, were originally designed to last a lifetime,” Rui says. Critical’s approach is to recycle plastics back into their first principles, creating materials that will last effectively a lifetime compared to current building materials. The company employs advanced material science and mechanical engineering to achieve this without using additives or breakable veneers. They are also exploring the integration of organic materials and other natural fibers into Cleanstone.

Another significant advantage of Cleanstone panels is the health and safety benefits for workers. “Unlike traditional materials such as silica, which pose health risks, Cleanstone panels minimise exposure to harmful substances,” Rui emphasises.

In Critical’s factory, panels are cut using CNC machines, and all chips and dust are collected and reintegrated into the production process. Contractors are advised to use standard dust masks and vacuums when sanding or polishing, ensuring a safe working environment.

Critical is pursuing sustainability certifications and standards as a growing company to reinforce its commitment to environmental responsibility. Cleanstone panels are already recognised by the New Zealand Green Building Council, and further testing is underway to ensure they meet the highest mechanical and durability standards.

Cleanstones that tell a sustainability story specific and unique to your business
Cleanstones that tell a sustainability story specific and unique to your business

Buy-back scheme and local operations to support circular economy

Critical operates a buyback scheme where customers can return off-cuts and dust from Cleanstone panels for recycling. This scheme is financially beneficial for customers and supports the circular economy by ensuring that materials are reused. Rui shares, “Our long-term goal is to establish modular production lines in cities worldwide, eliminating the need for long-distance shipping and enhancing sustainability.”

Critical is focused on global growth and expansion by establishing modular production lines for recycling plastics locally, rather than shipping them internationally. “This approach ensures sustainability and efficiency, avoiding the environmental and logistical issues associated with transporting waste across borders,” explains Rui. The company plans to deploy these modular systems in cities worldwide, operating as franchises to maintain local recycling operations. This strategy eliminates the need for shipping plastics to New Zealand for recycling and allows end-of-life materials to be processed locally, enhancing the overall sustainability of their efforts.

Partnerships for future growth

Critical is actively seeking commercial partnerships with furniture manufacturers, architecture firms, retail and hospitality brands, and property developers. “We want to make their fit-outs 100% circular and carbon-neutral while also telling a compelling sustainability story to their customers,” Rui says.

If you are interested in partnering with Critical or learning more about Cleanstone panels, you can visit their website and reach out to the team.

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