Industrial or artisanal production processes almost always begin with a raw material of natural origin, which is then transformed into a finished product, such as a piece of clothing, a kitchen appliance, or even packaging for food. When the product is no longer useful or needed, it is thrown away. A small proportion of discarded goods are recycled, while most end up in dumps and landfills. Due to high levels of extractivism, many resources are at risk of exhaustion, creating a future where materials of mineral, vegetable, and animal origin are scarce.
There are two major environmental issues associated with this method of production: firstly, it demands more than the planet can provide, and secondly, it generates waste at the end of the chain. Modern society has been performing this cycle for long enough that it has already generated an alternative source of resources so abundant that it seems inexhaustible: its own waste.
If we immediately stopped all extraction and production of raw materials, how long could we use our waste to produce everything we consume?
Miniwiz transforms recycled plastic materials into exhibition spaces, restaurant interiors, and airplane wings
This one-way path (extraction, production, consumption, and disposal) is already frowned upon by a generation of people who are fighting to reduce waste by reusing materials for their creations. Such is the case for Miniwiz, a company solely dedicated to upcycling and recycling waste from industry and human consumption. While most people believe that waste is simply a result of modern living, Miniwiz sees it as an opportunity for a circular, sustainable, and clean economy.
With a team of architects, planners, engineers, designers, and producers, the company has invented over a thousand new sustainable solutions for materials recovered from waste. To do so, they created The Trash Lab, a laboratory dedicated exclusively to unlocking the potential behind this environmental issue. One of its most recent projects is Pentatonic, a consumer goods brand whose story begins at the end, taking its raw materials from the end of the production chain.
Horizontal transformation of raw materials within the same category
Many small producers already reuse defected clothing from the fashion industry or thrift stores to make new items. Think Blue, a brand from Rio de Janeiro, creates tops, skirts, dresses, and pants from used jeans that nobody wants anymore. They even offer a lifetime warranty for their clothing — if they tear or the stitching comes undone, they repair the item at no cost, prolonging the life span of the products they put out into the world.
Elodie Le Boucher and Shéhrazade Schneider, from Parisian restaurant Simone Lemon, are also working with horizontal transformation, where the discarded material and the final product belong to the same category. In their case, however, the raw material is perishable: the ugly, bruised, and disproportionate fruit and vegetables that are rejected by large supermarket chains, despite being perfectly edible. Their business model is that aesthetics and shape do not affect taste. There is no difference in the final product, and the most important thing is that nothing is thrown away. Everything is reused, even customer leftovers are fed to the animals or used as compost.
Development of new raw materials
In order to lower the demand for new raw materials, it is often necessary to develop new solutions and invest in technological research. The recent rise in alternatives to animal leather, for example, has made use of raw plant materials such as pineapple, leftover wine, kombucha, and mushrooms. But on the market today, those who prefer to avoid products of animal origin will only be able to find Piñatex, a leather substitute made of pineapple leaves, which have no nutritional or commercial value and are usually thrown away as waste. Production of the new raw material does not require any extra resources: no extra land and no extra water, fertilizers, or pesticides. As the quality of the material improves, small brands have started using it in their collections. Such is the case for designer Ina Koelln, who makes bags and small accessories using Piñatex.
Online graphics company Moo has launched a new eco-friendly business card. They replaced common recycled paper with paper made from recycled cotton. The cards are made entirely from recycled T-shirt offcuts. This is a new way of making a traditional product; cotton paper has long been recognized for its sophisticated feel and appearance. The material was developed in partnership with Mohawk, a paper specialist.
Punāh is the Sanskrit term for “again.” The Punāh project is an initiative run by Godrej & Boyce, one of India’s largest consumer goods manufacturers, that focuses on rethinking the definition and use of “waste materials.” The conglomerate generates approximately 18,505 tons of waste every year. When it is not sent to landfills and incinerators, the utility of these waste materials is usually reduced via downcycling. Seeing the potential of these materials, which require lots of processing, energy and resources to become new products, the company created a materials library for designers. There are 600 options cataloged.
Vertical transformation of raw materials between different categories
Another way of upcycling or recyclying involves changing the use of the raw material. Pre-existing materials from one industry are reused in another, for something other than their most obvious purpose. French brand Matlama recycles plastic oyster farming cages into bags, shopping carts, bicycle baskets, and other everyday objects.
Jesper Jensen recycles used materials with an attention to detail that turns commodities into luxury objects, easily equal to any product purchased in a designer store. All the work is done by hand in a studio in Berlin. Every morning, the team cycles around the neighborhood collecting empty wine bottles that are then washed, broken down, molded, and polished, creating glasses, vases, and jugs of all sizes. The final product is even packaged in boxes made of discarded fruit crates. The entire product is made from the waste of others, and the brand is proud of it.
In partnership with Swedish design studio Form Us With Love, furniture and home accessories giant Ikea has launched a new kitchen model made solely of recycled materials. Each kitchen module is made of reclaimed wood from industry surplus and its coating is composed of 25 recycled plastic bottles. The brand expects the product to last up to 25 years.
Use of materials in art
Architect Luciana Monaco’s Projeto Garagem (“The Garage Project”) takes discarded objects and gives them new life through art and design. She collects damaged dishes and glasses from restaurants and events rental services, then invites designers and artists to make new creations from them. All adaptations are valid, whether they have a use or are purely aesthetic. The work of Colombian designer Heidi Jalkh, for example, is highly conceptual. Blowing glass inside broken pieces of ceramic, she creates pieces that provoke our thoughts on waste.
Ruby Parker studied jewelry design at British art school Central Saint Martins, and her final collection was inspired by waste. She deconstructed packaging, such as egg boxes, aluminum pie tins, and washing detergent pouches to create unique textures and patterns that look nothing like their original form.
Initiatives like those mentioned above are still the exception on the market, but it is hoped that in the future, every product will be designed to take full advantage of its raw material, always making it possible to be transformed again, returning it to the top of the production chain.
In Brazil today, even 100%-recyclable products and packaging are likely to end up as waste. Simply being recyclable or reusable is not enough, the materials must be sent to the right destination — they must be returned to the productive cycle whenever possible.
The product of the future will be made of materials that already exist in the world, used collectively and designed to facilitate recycling. Zero waste Europe states that if a product cannot be reused, repaired, disassembled, remanufactured, recycled, or composted, then it should be redesigned or progressively phased out from the market.