Innovation That Matters

Matt and Jonny Browning on circular production

Wise Words

We spoke with the founders of Youtube channel Brothers Make to understand what it means to be circular designers and the responsibility as manufacturers to take responsibility for waste.

Brothers Make is a YouTube channel created by UK-based brothers Matt and Jonny Browning. The channel aims to show people that recycling and sustainability are things that can be achieved “on a small scale as well as a big scale.” After its initial success when it was first created in 2018, Matt and Jonny opened an online store selling products made using 100 percent recycled waste plastic. 

According to the United Nations, 2016 saw 320 million tonnes of plastic produced for our 7 billion people. The production of plastic has drastically increased compared to the 1950s when 1.5 million tonnes of plastic were produced for a population of 2.5 billion. With this in mind, we spoke to Brothers Make to better understand their values and perspectives as responsible producers and what it means to prioritise the sustainability of their process over their overall bottom line. 

1. Where did the original idea for Brothers Make come from? And what inspired you to materialise it?

We initially wanted to start making things together as an excuse to hang out more. We are four years apart in age but we have always been quite close. We started off by converting Matt’s garage into a more usable workshop space before making projects, mostly out of scrap wood. After doing that for a few months, we figured we may as well film the process for YouTube, since we always enjoyed watching people make things as well. We uploaded our first ever video in May 2018 and since then our channel has grown to over 130,000 subscribers.

2. What does success look like for Brothers Make? What are your key objectives at present?

Our main goal has always been to inspire people to make things. I (Matt) have been a secondary school Design & Technology teacher for around eight years and it’s part of my job to get kids interested in my subject. Since moving towards a more sustainable and eco-conscious message on our channel, it has become even more important to us to show people that recycling and sustainability are things that can be achieved on a small scale as well as a big scale. Eventually, we’d like to be able to offer workshops that teach people first-hand how they can recycle and turn waste into “Precious Plastic”.

3. What were your backgrounds prior to this, and how did that shape your work?

Jonny studied Business Management & Marketing at university, and he now works as a Senior Account Manager at a local ad agency. Matt studied Architecture & Environmental Engineering at university and now is a D&T teacher at a local secondary school. Both of our roles work well in shaping how we run Brothers Make as a business. Jonny tends to tackle the editing of the videos and Matt focuses on designing the next projects. It tends to work well.

4. Who or what inspires you personally?

A fantastic maker who is well known in the maker community is Jimmy Diresta. He makes excellent YouTube videos showcasing his incredible talent at almost everything. We’ve met him a few times at maker events and trade shows and he is one of the most humble people we’ve met. An amazing inspiration to all. Another YouTuber that inspires us constantly is Colin Furze. He makes insane engineering contraptions and hugely entertaining videos. I recommend his channel to my students regularly.
The Precious Plastic community, known as One Army, is also a huge source of inspiration. They are the reason we are where we are today and their mission is to make information about plastic recycling open-source. We are very proud to work alongside them in tackling this mission.

5. Brothers Make is proving that making a profit as a business and helping the planet can co-exist. How does Brothers Make lead by example?

We think that it’s important that manufacturers take responsibility for their waste. Now that we are manufacturers of our own products, we create our own waste. It’s inevitable that every process does. However, we are very passionate about making our production circular. Meaning we ensure that all our waste is thought about as an intrinsic part of the process. We ensure that the offcuts and waste chippings of plastic we produce are carefully collected up and reused into other products. It takes time and equipment (and therefore, money) to operate in this way, but if we don’t do this then we are just as much a part of the problem that we are trying to solve. I think any business could certainly look at this and try to prioritise the sustainability of their process over their overall bottom line. There would certainly be less waste to deal with in the world if every company did this.

6. What are the key challenges you face in your efforts to produce a range of products from discarded plastics?

Part of the challenge is the supply of plastic. One hundred per cent of our products are made from post-consumer waste plastic. This means that somewhere along the line we need to take plastic from people to process it. With our currently limited manpower, this is not part of the cycle that is monitored heavily. We have a donation point set up on our driveway with informational signage to show what can and can’t be donated. Most of the time, people donate washed and dried plastic ready to go. However, we have had numerous items left in the donation crate such as batteries, candles, drawing pins, paperclips, etc, not to mention the vast amount of the wrong type, or unclean plastic. Unfortunately, this has led to us having to close our donation point at present, since we are unable to spend the time it would take to go through to sort and clean all of this donated material ready for use in our projects. A lot of this comes down to education. This is something else we’d like to be able to offer alongside our workshops in the future.

7. What do you think are the major challenges that designers are facing to create upcycled products? And do you think that it is possible to truly embrace all points of circular design?

We fully believe that circular design is possible. It is heavily dependent on the nature of the products being sold as well as the logistics of the process in place to be able to offer a fully circular process. As designers, there are a lot of challenges to face when designing a new product. Not only does the product have to be feasible in terms of manufacturing time and quantity of material used, but there must be a reasonable level of demand for the product to make it a financially viable product. A lot of the time, this is very difficult to predict until moulds have been manufactured and tested, which can cost a lot of money and time. It’s a catch-22 situation and often the only way to tell for sure is to take a leap of faith. After all of that, if the product just becomes another item in the throwaway culture that we, unfortunately, live in, then it must be asked whether it was worthwhile at all.

8. What is one book (podcast, documentary, etc.) that has inspired you and that you recommend?

As Makers, we have listened to a lot of the ‘Making It’ podcast by 3 long-standing members in the maker community. It was one of the early episodes titled Getting Started that was the inspiration for us to bite the bullet and start our YouTube channel.

As a parent to two young children, I’d also like to recommend a book called The Trouble with Dragons, which is a fantastic book to help teach young minds about the damage being done to the planet.

9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs or “Plastic Preneurs”?

FAIL = First Attempt In Learning. I have a poster in my classroom that says this. From a young age, we are taught that failure is bad. But failing at something means that you have learned what not to do on the next go. It shouldn’t be a reason to not have a go in the first place. Every project and video we make is always a result of us having a go at something. The first attempt is never what we envisioned and it takes multiple FAILures for us to get to a point where we are comfortable showing it to others.