GOING FOR GOLD (Crafts Magazine)

After the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics incorporated electronic waste into their medals and as London’s Design Museum showcases an installation by artist Ibrahim Mahama made from electronic waste for its exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do?, Katie Treggiden, author of Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure, explores the concept of ‘urban mining’ and talks to the craftspeople using e-waste in their work.

Most of us remember learning the periodic table at school. Neat rows of boxes filled with mystifying combinations of letters and numbers, each representing one of the 90 elements that are the building blocks of everything on Earth. Sitting on those science lab stools, none of us imagined they might run out but, today, some are already in short supply. In fact, the European Chemical Society has released a new periodic table, putting 12 elements on an ‘endangered’ list. Gone are the ordered lines that appeared in our chemistry books. In their place, amorphous shapes depict the comparative availability of each element, and a colour-coding system highlights which elements are most at risk and those that come from minerals mined in conflict zones. Thirty-one of the elements carry a smartphone symbol, spotlighting that they are used in every one of the 1.56 billion smart phones we make annually. Five of these are already coded red – their availability under ‘serious threat in the next 100 years’.

Precious metals such as gold, copper and silver are among those becoming scarce, while antimony (used in batteries) and lead both look set to dry up in the next decade. Their availability is hampered not by limited existence – there is as much gold on the planet as ever – but there are few effective recycling processes, which means that the decreasing supplies underground and their location in conflict zones . Approximately 10% of gold produced annually and a third of silver is used to produce electronic goods, and yet less than a fifth of e-waste is recycled – even during recycling, most rare earth metals are lost. Increasingly, the elements we need are not in the ground, but in landfill. According to one estimate, so-called ‘e-waste mountains’ hold precious metals such as gold in concentrations 40–50 times higher than can be mined underground.

The Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama highlights the scale of the problem with a mountain-like installation made from e-waste at the heart of the exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do? currently at London’s Design Museum. It features alongside a film by design studio Formafantasma showing research from its three-year investigation into the recycling of electronic waste. Another output from Ore Streams – its multimedia project first commissioned by NGV Australia and Triennale Milano – is office furniture made from iron and aluminium extracted from computer cases and components. ’  says co-founder Simone Farresin. ‘The future of electronic waste is not in recycling, but in reusing components.

If the problem is being highlighted at London’s Design Museum, a potential solution took centre stage in Tokyo this summer, where medals at the Summer Olympics and Paralympics were made of recycled electrical devices. Approximately 78,985 tons of discarded devices were collected, classified, dismantled, and melted down before being turned into bronze, silver, and gold medals.

Designers and craftspeople are already thinking along similar lines. In 2015, the designer Jorien Wiltenburg put forward a ‘future design scenario’ as part of her graduate project at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam – her Micro Urban Mining project proposed that copper harvested from electronic cables could be used to weave and knit baskets and fabrics. ‘Restoring the connection between the creation and the use of an object gives us the strange but exciting feeling of having brought back to life something that was considered obsolete,’ she said at the time. It was entirely conceptual, but now pioneering makers and designers such as Sandra Wilson, Studio Plastique and Marta Torrent Boix are making such ideas a reality.

Dr Sandra Wilson. Photo David Cheskin.

Modern-day alchemist, Sandra Wilson

Sandra Wilson is a silversmith, jeweller, researcher and educator at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, Scotland. She is interested in what she calls the ‘edges of things’. Her research exists in the spaces between jewellery and metal design and other fields – biology, psychology, anthropology and, recently, chemistry. For her Urban Gold Rush project, she collaborated with the Love Chemistry Laboratory at Edinburgh University to recover copper and gold from old computer circuit boards she sourced on eBay, using a technique called hydrometallurgy. ‘The process works with aqueous solutions using acids to recover precious metals,’ she explains. She used hydrochloric acid to recover all the metals from the circuit boards , and then employed chemical compounds or ligands (molecules or atoms which bind reversibly to a protein) to separate them. ‘I spend a lot of time shaking flasks with different solutions and filtering chemicals,’ she says. ‘I feel like a modern-day alchemist.’

Using traditional hand-raising techniques to create sterling silver vessels, Wilson paints the surfaces with her recovered metals in solution, allowing the water to evaporate and the metals to react with the silver, creating distinctive patinas. She has discovered that the process, known as electro-chemical displacement plating, was once used by pre-Hispanic Andean metalworkers. ‘We can learn a lot from historical processes that will enable us to address sustainability,’ she says. ‘Craft values that emphasise materials, where they come from, and how we work with them are incredibly important – and craft practitioners, alongside other disciplines, are central to addressing the big cultural issues of our time.’

Wilson is now collaborating with the National Institute for Design (NID) in Ahmedabad to create a new value chain for female jewellers in India. Such artisans are often charged more for raw materials and paid poorly for their finished products. ‘This project aims to connect female jewellers to e-waste recyclers and create a new “chain of custody” mark for their finished products, so they can charge a premium,’ she says. The project has been hampered by funding cuts and COVID-19, but she is hopeful for its impact. ‘It feels like we are only now getting going,’ she says.

Sand savers: Studio Plastique

Brussels-based Studio Plastique mines electronic waste for glass, rather than precious metals. Silicon (Si) is still categorised as in ‘plentiful supply’ on the European Chemical Society’s new periodic table, but sand (SiO2) is scarce, driven by an exponential increase in demand for concrete – China has used more in the last 11 years than the USA used in the 20th century. The problem is that desert sand – eroded by wind – is too smooth to lock together and form materials such as concrete and glass, so it is the angular, water-eroded sand that is used – and it’s running out.

But there is plenty of glass in landfill. The ‘odd material out’ in electronic waste, the glass windows found in washing machines, kettles and microwaves is often difficult for facilities to recycle, despite being eminently suitable. Theresa Bastek and Archibald Godts, co-founders of Studio Plastique, spotted an opportunity. ‘It is downright stupid to neglect those materials. It is common sense to find applications for them,’ says Bastek. Common Sands – a play on ‘common sense’ – is their collection of vessels, tableware and home accessories made from glass recovered from electronic waste. The colours and textures of each piece are a result of the metal oxides and coatings used within common household appliances, and each piece is marked with the origin of the glass from which is it made, in an attempt to restore the relationships between resource, producer and user.

The first prototypes were made using traditional and the pair is now investigating semi-industrial processes to enable them to scale up. ‘Our generation is facing the consequences of poor resource management and poor design,’ says Bastek. ‘There is too much nonsense in the way we harvest, produce, and consume – long-established, yet illogical cycles that are harmful to nature. There is no way around designing with waste in the future. What once seemed utopian will become obvious. But it has to be done right, it has to be done beautifully.’

Urban miner: Marta Torrent Boix

Spanish product designer and maker Marta Torrent Boix started working with electronic waste by chance. She wanted to explore pottery and, without access to a wheel, she set about making one. Realising that she would need an electric motor if she didn’t want to power the wheel by foot, she called a mechanic friend to see whether he might have one to spare. He didn’t, but offered her a broken washing machine instead. ‘I only ever intended to use its motor, but when I started disassembling it, I realised that inside this “white box,” there were hundreds of useable parts,’ she says. ‘I ended up making the whole wheel from washing machine parts.’ She has been making machines from electronic waste ever since.

For her Urban Mines – her final project for her Material Futures MA at Central Saint Martins this year – she collected dumped electronic goods from the streets of London and repurposed them into both a table and a clay extruder to add to her potter’s wheel. She now uses these machines to make ceramic tableware. ‘Urban Mines highlights the contrast between the intangible and mechanical parts of e-waste and the tactile part of ceramics,’ she says. ‘Through this project, I am combining old craft techniques with new and wasted technology to create unique ceramic pieces.’ The pottery forms have their own distinctive style. Relatively straight-sided and oversized terracotta bowls and mugs feature chunky extruded handles that bear the marks of her machines.

Although Boix is making use of electronic waste, she’s not convinced that what she’s doing is the solution. ‘The problem starts in the way these products are produced,’ she says. ‘Complex artefacts like electronic devices have to be designed, not just for assembly and use, but for disassembly. If there as a simple way to separate and classify the integrated materials, they would be easier to recycle.’


Of course, these problems call for legislative intervention, and rules that go beyond the recently enacted ‘right to repair bill’ in the UK, but in answer to the question posed by the Design Museum, ‘what can design do?’ Formafantasma’s Simone Farresin agrees with Boix; it starts long before the end of a product’s life. ‘When you open an electronic product up, there’s no clear colour coding or labelling that tells you what is hazardous, because you’re not supposed to open it,’ he says. ‘A simple, universal colour coding system would not only increase the rare earth materials that can be salvaged, but also protect workers in the global South. Designers need to be involved because they can spot where things can be improved.’

From designers at the beginning of the process to craftspeople at the end, re-channelling the electronic waste stream is going require imagination and expertise at every stage. Luckily, it’s clear from the work of Wilson, Boix, Studio Plastique, Wiltenburg and Formafantasma that both already exist; it’s simply a matter of making the connections – a little ‘thinking around the edges’, as Wilson might put it.

Darren Appiagyei Turns Wood From Fallen Trees Into Hand-turned Vessels (Circular by Design, Design Milk)

Darren Appiagyei is a London UK-based woodturner. He graduated from UAL Camberwell College of The Arts, where he studied 3D design in 2016. Darren’s work is about highlighting the intrinsic beauty of the wood and celebrating features such as knots, cracks, bark, or distinctive grain, which are often seen as flaws. He works only with wood from fallen trees that would otherwise be chopped up for firewood. We caught up with Darren to find out more…

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education, and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design, and sustainability.

I was born in London to Ghanaian parents, who were very invested in the Ghanaian culture, so my childhood home was adjourned with traditional Ghanaian objects such as the Ashanti stool and the neem wood sculpture. I was very much a creative person in my own little way, I would endlessly draw for hours patiently shading and dotting away. I continued to be creative into my GCSEs and A-levels. It was at University where I developed a sense of direction; I studied 3D design at UAL Camberwell College of the Arts – in my second year we had a unit where we had to learn a new skill and I gravitated towards the lathe, which was hardly used. Learning how to turn was a gradual process of learning and developing with the help of YouTube and the university technicians. Through trial and error, I slowly gained a real appreciation for wood and its grains and textures. I fell in love with the material – I was absolutely spellbound as the wood revealed itself to me as I carved. My interest in sustainability developed as I researched a variety of woods further and understood their properties, depending on where the wood was sourced as well as the difference between trees that had naturally fallen and trees that have deliberately been cut. Once I graduated, I won The Worshipful Company of Turners and Cockpit Arts Awards in 2017 and started to develop a sustainable practice. I was introduced to Woodlands Farm in Shooters Hill, from which I source my wood, only using wood from fallen trees.

How would you describe your project/product?

Making with wood is a collaboration between me and the material. It’s an honoring of the intrinsic beauty of the wood; it’s all about allowing the wood to speak for itself rather than refining and polishing it into something it’s not. Enhancing the imperfections of the wood, my approach is simply about allowing the organic beauty of the wood to shine, whether it be a grain, a knot or just the texture of the wood. Every vessel is a representation of the beauty of wood in its natural state. I like to think of my work like people – everyone is different in their own way, with unique experiences and this is what makes both people and wood so special, every piece is so different even if it’s the same species. I work with a variety of woods; from oak burr – which is a diseased part that has to be cut off oak trees so it won’t cause the whole tree to rot – to spalted beech which has a highlighted element caused by fungi.

What inspired this project/product?

Being a lover of nature inspires me. Growing up in Greenwich, I was fortunate enough to have Greenwich Park just around the corner from home. The park has always been a peaceful haven for me – there is something about walking, thinking, talking with friends, living in the present moment and appreciating my surroundings. I find nature quite magical – can you imagine if trees could talk? The stories they would tell, the history they have lived through…

My cultural identity is another strong influence on my work – it has enabled me to be bold, to dare to break the mold, and to be authentic in my work. I also hope my audience can see the influence of African art in my work aesthetically.

What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select those particular materials and how do you source them?

The majority of the wood I used is sourced from Woodlands Farm in Shooters Hill. They have tree surgeons who remove wood that has naturally fallen. It’s a magical moment when I rummage through the woodpile and wait for the wood to speak to me, as I try to imagine what I could do with each piece and the shapes I could make to accentuate certain aspects of the wood. It’s a patient approach as I forage through the wood logs, which are most likely to be cut down into square logs and used as firewood otherwise.

When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision

We live in the ‘Amazon era.’ We order things and they come straight away without a thought. Going to the woodlands farm instead of going to a timber shop where the timber has been seasoned and cleaned up – seeing the raw wood in its natural state really made an impression on me; this wood has the potential to have a second life and deserves to be used effectively, rather than merely being used as firewood which eventually diminishing into ashes.

What processes do the materials have to undergo to become the finished product?

My making process starts from the moment I am at the Woodlands Farm, when I envisage the shapes I could create as I observe the natural features of the wood. The making process proper ultimately begins when I start to carve into the wood and it reveals itself to me, it’s like an egg hatching – it’s a delicate and slow process. It’s a collaboration between me and the wood as I use bowl gouges and chisels. It’s a therapeutic process as I carve on my lathe (a union graduate lathe) and the wood reveals itself to me; it could be a detail, a knot, or a transition in tone that catches my attention. Instinctively, I allow the detail of the wood to dictate my design as I simply aim to enhance features. Once I am satisfied with the shape of the wood, I hollow out the inside. It can be an intense process as I thin the walls to my vessel – it’s a bit like grinding into concrete if it’s seasoned wood, whereas it’s like carving into clay if it’s green wood which has been freshly cut. The sanding stage is a slow and gradual process. I see sanding as quality control it’s a time to observe and remove scratches and mistakes. Depending on what I am doing, I may burn the surface of the wood or just leave it as it is. The most frequent question I get is ‘how do I know when to stop?’. It’s intuition, you just know. It’s like in Forrest Gump. Forrest starts running after his heartache with Jenny, he keeps running and gets to the point where people jog along with him, and then suddenly he just stops jogging; he is satisfied and knows he’s done enough. It’s a similar feeling when it comes to my work, once I am satisfied, I add a couple of coatings of Danish oil and it’s finished.

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?

The great thing about wood is that it’s quite a tactile material, especially if it’s hardwood. Of course, it is biodegradable, but I do romanticize the idea that my work could become a family heirloom, passed down from one generation to the next. I like to think it’s part of my legacy, that when I die a part of me lives on through my work. I have also been looking into how I can close the circle – my aim is that with every vessel I make, I will plant a tree to leave something for the future generations of wood makers.

How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?

I was amazed by the details of the wood. It made me see the wood in a whole different light and I had an eagerness to work with the material again to explore further and push its limits. I was quite excited and I spent a lot of time observing the wood – touching it like a child who receives a toy for the first time, just playing with the material.

How have people reacted to this project?

I love it when people react to my work and understand the origins of the material, they compare it to certain details they may have seen on trees and that truly makes me happy. To know that something I have created has made someone appreciate nature, trees, bark and branches – all things they see every day in their life but may not have taken much notice of before, makes me very happy.

How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing? What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?

I believe people are more willing and open to using waste; experimenting and finding solutions. People are certainly open to learning about how I use waste and understanding how even this stunning wood is waste, essentially. There is a curiosity about raw materials and a desire to change views and give wasted materials a second or third life. Ultimately the future is bright and it’s important those of us who who work with waste materials continue to do so; in order to educate and inspire the next generation of makers.

To read the article at its source click here, or find out more about Darren here.