This September, the last strand of our ‘Material Explorations’ series focused on Waste Streams, imagining a world in which we could either eliminate industrial and food waste or repurpose it to create new sustainable materials and uses. A waste-free world often feels out of reach – especially when disposable design feels like a pervasive part of our everyday lives. This could be the waste we produce at lunch break with a cardboard cup, plastic cutlery and paper plate. Yet it could also include how we may contribute to food waste, which amounts to 4.4m tonnes thrown away by UK households in 2015.
Making sustainable change possible can feel overwhelming when so many products we automatically use or consume within a few minutes can have a long-lasting negative effect on our planet. Yet, our long-term responsibility as individuals can only extend so far as the products available to us as consumers. Radical sustainable change also depends on many wasteful industries being prepared to change the way they work as cheap mass-producers of objects designed to be thrown and replaced. This requires listening to, supporting and working with creative practitioners who can approach a problem from a different viewpoint to change society’s behaviour and perception concerning waste – no longer as a given, but as a precious resource leading to creativity, innovation and social change. Our week-long programme during London Design Festival sought to use these themes to challenge audiences’ perceptions and assumptions around design created from waste. The variety of our collaborators’ approaches and practices, as Makerversity members, alumni and external exhibitors, extended from art, design to science, social engagement and consultancy. Together they expressed the variety and dynamism within the field, where artistic, scientific and activist thinking often collide to create new ideas.
“Yes you can touch the works – and you can eat this one.” These are words I never ever thought I would say in an exhibition. As a visitor munched on an edible plate on display made out of wheat bran by Biotrem (“It’s a bit dry. It needs a side sauce,” they commented), another touched a transparent packaging made of milk protein by Lactips, made to dissolve in water. Many did a double-take when I explain that the soft suede-like material they are touching is actually mushroom skin, conceived by Muskin (“Hey you’re vegan – you’ll like this,” a visitor says, handing the sample to their friend). An unassuming piece of black stretch fabric by Orange Fiber – made with a percentage of orange peel waste – attracts looks and statements of disbelief when the source material was revealed (“You’re joking. How is that even possible?”).
These works and many more were part of the Waste Stream exhibition’s central display curated by design and material innovation consultancy Material Driven, showcasing designers working with food waste as their primary material resource. While I knew how innovative and thought-provoking the works would be for Somerset House’s audiences, what I could not expect was the sheer delight people took in touching and engaging directly with materials, imagining their use and playing games “guessing the material” before looking at the captions to find out more. New sustainable alternatives feel far more tangible when they (literally) are at your fingertips – whether they are experimental projects, prototypes or commercially available products. Material Driven co-directors Purva Chawla and Adele Orcajada’s work connecting designers with companies able to further their ideas and concepts was excellent in showing the sheer range of applications waste repurposing could bring, exploring agricultural, food and plastic waste in uses from packaging and construction to decoration and textile. This energy was evident in the debate they moderated with the rest of our exhibitors, including Ehab Sayed from Biohm, a company exploring sustainable materials use in construction. Artist Luca Alessandri’s intervention during our private view also allowed for a live demonstration of the acoustic differences between a traditional violin and one made from spider silk.
Next to Material Driven, Chip[s]Board’s product of the same name is an eco-friendly alternative to MDF made from potato peel waste – visitors could engage with its different uses, both as a sample, a puzzle piece and even a small model of a restaurant which showed the way in which an entire Chipsboard-based interior design could be conceived using a material which can, crucially, biodegrade after use. This is particularly important in the context of MDF as a widely unsustainable material whose disposal can involve either incineration or landfill – combined with the amount of potato peel waste produced yearly.
Next to them, Isabel Fletcher’s Offcut One collection used textile industrial offcuts to create an entirely new collection – a welcome addition to Fashion Week happening around the same time, where the industry’s lack of sustainability is a frequent topic of concern. The collection also drove home the point that the solution to creating sustainable approaches is often collaborative and inter-disciplinary – with buttons made of Parblex bioplastic developed by Chip[s]board and organic wool and hemp from British local sources.
Another type of hybrid collaboration takes place in the lamp designs conceived by Adam Davies – one with mycelium (the fungi found in mushrooms) grown inside a 3D printed mould for five days to create a solid, lightweight and biodegradable design. Sanne Visser’s swing, part of her project “The Age of Trichology”, elicited different reactions of curiosity and often disgust when visitors realised the sturdy, coarse rope involved was made of real human hair, and produced by repurposed the waste produced by endless hairdressing salons, amounting to 6,5 million kg in the UK. Despite mixed responses when it comes to “using” hair, Sanne’s workshop was fully booked by people coming to learn more about her process and made their own rope designs – with many thanks to the Dutch Embassy and Arthur Beale for providing support and material.
Talking and making with workshop participants drove home another essential point: what if consumers wishing to become environmentally responsible could not only use products made from waste, but also learn to harness and create materials themselves using household ingredients and sharing information for themselves? A large amount of hair waste is not (normally) available to us all outside Sanne’s workshop, nor are some of the wider materials, processes and skills used by some exhibitors. This said, what about cornstarch, turmeric or coffee ground waste using the same basic techniques as cooking? Materiom’s recipes from their Materials Library, which are freely accessible, compile different experiments to make DIY sustainable materials, using kitchen tools, ingredients and techniques such as mixing and light heating. This included a composite using coffee ground waste, a bioplastic with turmeric and agar agar and a gelatin “leather”.
Their “Trash to Treasure” workshop led by Materiom involved sourcing much of the food waste we needed within Somerset House and Makerversity itself. This included our own source of food waste and delicious beverages: The Paint Room. Our bar manager Alex started collecting ground coffee waste a few days before the workshop, so that they could remain fresh. We were very grateful for Spring Restaurant providing food waste leftover from their week’s menu, adding texture and colour to our materials with hot pink pigment extracted from beetroot peel waste. The workshop started out by measuring out ingredients to stir in and gently heat in a pan on the hotplate before pouring out our liquids into moulds to let them cool and solidify into gelatinous, technically-edible forms. Yet it also quickly evolved beyond set instructions into curiosity, experimentation and fun. What happens if you change the doses, put too much alginate, or mix turmeric and beetroot colouring? The end results looked beautiful, weird, or in one instance very much like fake food in colour and consistency. “We actually have all these things in our kitchen cupboard, so let’s try!” comments a dad, back in the exhibition, as his six-year old daughter asks is they can make all this at home, prodding at our jelly-like post-workshop samples (Her comment: “It’s like Slime!”). To me this highlighted the magic in a project whose ethos is open-source from start to finish – from contributions to the library to the variations the recipes may bring in people’s kitchens.
Visitors’ curious and enthusiastic reactions were as crucial as more critical or even skeptical questions and comments. Would a packaging or food industry realistically adopt these often perishable products for wider commercial distribution? How accessible to the average consumer would these products be, price-wise, given how much it costs to manufacture them? A general consensus among programme attendants was that they were often aware of the problems around sustainability, but rarely able to view the solutions in a tangible and material form, or interact directly with designers who may be conceiving the future right now. Proposals for what a waste-free future needs to become a conversation extending beyond companies and designers to encompass wider public awareness, questioning and curiosity. In many ways this spirit of interaction, collaboration and conversation was as much at the heart of re-harnessing waste than the ideas, projects and products themselves.
Keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming events in our public programme!