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The Age of Waste: five designers modelling a ‘circular economy’ (The Observer)

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We name epochs of history for the materials that define them, from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages to the hundred years that straddle the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, known as ‘the Plastics Age’. As the finite resources of our planet become ever scarcer, enterprising designers are turning to rubbish as an increasingly abundant raw material. Katie Treggiden, author of Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure, considers whether our next era might be defined by waste.

Two-thirds of the resources we take from the earth are discarded. We are throwing away, burning and burying the same valuable materials we have gone to such great lengths to excavate to the extent that copper can now be found in higher concentrations in the ash leftover from the incineration of rubbish than in traditionally mined ore. In the UK, we each produce 2.37 pounds of rubbish every day (it’s almost double that in America) and for every sack we generate, another 70 sacks are created in the processes that bring about its contents. 47% of the virgin materials used by the fashion industry don’t even make it into the clothes on the high street. Approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, while we cut down rainforests to make space to grow more. And by 2050, it is estimated that the ocean will contain more plastic than fish – that’s calculated by weight and most plastic is pretty light. A gyre of waste in the Pacific Ocean is already three times the size of France.

But it’s not all bad news. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we have been accelerating a linear take-make-waste model that assumes an infinite supply of resources. Now, a new circular economy proposes something more sustainable. One of its key tenets is the notion of keeping materials in use. In a linear model, waste is the end point. In a circular model, it can represent the beginning of something new. Of course, we must reduce, if not eliminate, waste in new products and processes, but we also have an opportunity to take the legacy of 200 years of linear production and turn it into the starting point for meaningful, long-lasting products – and that’s exactly what a new generation of innovative designers is doing. It would be a stretch to suggest that their products might save the planet, but perhaps they can offer inspiration for a different perspective. If we can reframe our own ideas about waste as they have, we will have taken another step in the journey towards a thriving circular economy – one that can meet the needs of the present, while leaving the planet in a state that allows future generations to meet their needs too.

Post Adidas

Photo: Ronald Smits

When Adidas approached the Rotterdam-based designer Simone Post to recreate her graduate project (a collaboration with Dutch wax print company Vlisco to create rugs from their misprinted fabric), she encouraged them to look instead at their own waste streams. They wanted hardwearing rugs for the interiors of their shops. The difficulty was, whereas Vlisco manufacture in Holland and therefore generate waste in Holland, Adidas’ supply chain is global – or ‘big, far away and difficult to see,’ as Post puts it. She hit upon the idea of using post-consumer waste instead, calling the project Post Adidas. The brand made 409 million pairs of trainers between 2008 and 2018, so she didn’t have to look very far. ‘Sports shoes are made from multiple materials glued together – textiles, metal, soft plastics, hard plastics – and that needs to change because it makes them very difficult to recycle, she says. ‘But as a designer, you work with what you’ve got.’ She collaborated with I:CO, a German company, specialising in the collection, reuse and recycling of used clothing and shoes, that had already developed a method of shredding shoes. Post decided to sort the fragments into two colourways, light and dark. More complex separation is beyond the scope of current technologies, but this simple move enabled her to create complex graphic patterns – the melange of different colours is only discernible on closer inspection. The rugs are pressed, with a binding agent, into geometric shapes. ‘I never stop being amazed by the fresh, perfect-looking thing that emerges from what was considered waste,’ she says. She hopes to eventually use the process to make sports shoes for a fully circular product. Having been told at art school that ‘fashion is inherently unsustainable, so you don’t have to bother,’ Post believes things are starting to shift. ‘My generation and the generation after us really want to bring about change,’ she says. ‘There is so much leftover material that we cannot really ignore it anymore – and there are now so many initiatives that using waste to improve the system is almost becoming the obvious choice.’

Plastic Baroque

Photo: Rory Mulvey

Even recycling generates waste. London-based designer James Shaw’s collection of furniture is made from the sweepings that are left on a plastic recycling facility’s floor after the processing of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) milk bottles and other food packaging. With an extrusion gun of his own design, Shaw melts down the plastic pellets and squirts the melted plastic out into Play-Doh-like strands. With these, he ‘paints in three dimensions’ to create each piece. ‘I don’t really believe in waste – it shouldn’t exist,’ he says. ‘For my generation of designers, this kind of thinking is just implicit. We have so many high-quality waste products and materials that we are currently doing silly things with, like burying them in the ground or letting them escape into the oceans. It just seems logical to use them.’ The collection is named Plastic Baroque – by combining the word ‘plastic’, suggestive of cheapness, disposability and ubiquity, with the word ‘baroque’, evocative of luxury, opulence and excess, Shaw is attempting to challenge perceptions, elevate plastic’s value and inspire positive solutions to the environmental crisis. But it’s not to everyone’s taste and Shaw admits he is courting mixed responses. ‘I am up for things being provocative or disruptive, but at the same time I am chasing beauty,’ he says. ‘Some people really get it, and can see the beauty in it, but some people find it very ugly.’ Despite the negative reactions, Shaw believes attitudes are starting to change: ‘Whatever happens, waste will become much more widely used as a raw material,’ he argues. ‘Whether you are predicting “climate Armageddon” or business as usual, resources are becoming more scarce and we cannot keep relying on extraction for the materials we use in everyday life.’

Remember me

Photo: Saint James

As its name suggests, the Rememberme chair, by Tobias Juretzek, wasn’t inspired by a desire to use fashion waste, but out of an interest in the nature and value of our personal relationships with the objects we own. Describing each piece as a ‘time capsule of living history,’ he says: ‘Characteristics like details, colours and craftsmanship remain visible and create a vibrant product language. Clothes can encapsulate moments and adventures. My furniture transports these memories and gives them a new expression.’ However, that’s not to say the Berlin-based designer isn’t motivated by the environmental imperative – he has been making things out of the things other people throw away all his life. ‘As a child, I never considered waste as only waste,’ he says. ‘I often experienced the magic of turning discarded objects into something new.’ Today he works with an Italian recycling company to source unwanted clothes and with Italian furniture manufacturer Casamania & Horn to saturate them with a binding agent and compress them into chair-shaped moulds. It is still a very hands-on, and therefore small-scale, process, but he has big plans. He would like to scale up and utilise the pre-consumer waste streams of the fashion industry. ‘With its unconventional appearance, the chair serves as an ambassador for the value of discarded or unused materials,’ he says. ‘Even though sustainability is such a hot topic these days, a decrease in consumption is not noticeable. In order to create a more sustainable and progressive world, everybody needs to be involved. The Rememberme Chair challenges people to think differently.’

Exploring Eden

Photo: Rory Mulvey

Bethan Gray’s Exploring Eden collection of furniture and accessories – created in collaboration with sustainable surface specialist Nature Squared – uses shells and feathers that are discarded in food production. ‘As long as people are eating shellfish and poultry, this waste is being created,’ she says. ‘It just makes sense to find a use for it.’ Bright pink scallop shells are embedded into black eco-resin to showcase their zig-zag cross-section in a striking desk. ‘The bold, graphic pattern is amazing,’ says Gray. ‘Just like something I would have designed, but completely natural.’ Nature Squared were already using the brown part of the pen shell but hadn’t yet found a use for its iridescent nib. ‘It’s a black rainbow,’ enthuses Gray. ‘We just had to use it.’ And use it they did, creating a fluted coffee table, a lounge chair and a paperweight. The project is part of a wider environmental stewardship programme, so the additional income fishermen make from selling these shells is invested into replacing plastic nets with more ecological ones. In her London studio, Gray has always designed high-quality, long-lasting furniture and ensured her materials are ethically sourced, but this project was a catalyst for working in a more circular way. ‘In some ways I’m quite late to the party,’ she admits. ‘But working with these materials has changed the way I think about everything. Once your eyes are open, you rethink everything – this project has made me think differently. More consciously. Less wastefully.’

If Chairs Could Talk

Photo: Rory Mulvey

Growing up in a working-class family on a council estate in North London, designer Yinka Ilori was used to a ‘make do and mend’ approach to clothes and distinctly remembers arriving at school in a uniform two sizes too big that his mum assured him he would ‘grow into’. However, it was on his first trip to Nigeria – where his parents were born and raised – that he really became aware of reuse and recycling. ‘People were using old concrete blocks or tyres as seating or previously worn fabrics for upholstery,’ he says. ‘It was fascinating to see them using the everyday objects around them as part of designed objects.’ He studied furniture design at London Metropolitan University, where a brief to combine two discarded chairs into one reignited his passion for reuse. ‘Seeing two chairs from two different worlds come together to create a new narrative blew my mind,’ he says. ‘I suddenly saw chairs, not just as seats, but as objects that could have power and depth in society and perhaps even change perspectives.’ For Ilori, the use of waste in his work is also about more than just the environmental impact – it is about storytelling. Inspired by the Nigerian parable, ‘no matter how long the neck of a giraffe is, it still can’t see the future,’ his breakthrough project ‘If Chairs Could Talk’ told the stories of five childhood friends. ‘I grew up in a society where people are pre-judged,’ he says. ‘Of those five friends, some are famous actors, some are lawyers, and some are stuck inside a criminal justice system they’ve lost all faith in. I wanted to tell their stories.’ Ilori is now working on larger scale architectural projects, but is still concerned with reuse – his Colour Palace for Dulwich Picture Gallery was dismantled and repurposed into planter kits for school children and he now has a commitment to legacy written into his contracts, arguing that there is little point in using recycled materials if they can’t go back into the circular economy afterwards. ‘For the first time ever, I am really hopeful,’ he says. ‘The conversations I am having now are positive, empowering and fair. I am excited for the future.’

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