Waste Age: Design Museum exhibition highlights designers creating furniture from discarded plastic, rubble and food

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 (Felix Speller)
(Felix Speller)

A new generation of designers are picking rubbish as their material of choice, using discarded plastic, rubble and food to design homeware, furniture and building finishes that don’t look anything like castoffs.

An exhibition at The Design Museum, Waste Age: What can design do? (on until 20 February 2022), looks at the rubbish produced by ever-shorter lifespans in interior design, fashion and technology, and what today’s designers are doing with a bountiful raw material they would rather see as a dwindling resource.

It’s difficult to grasp just the scale of the problem when for most of us the thought process stops at remembering to put the recycling out on the right day. But an installation by Accra-based artist Ibrahim Mahama made from European electronic waste dumped in vast toxic scrapyards in Ghana do a good job of peeling back the blinkers about what the end of a trend cycle and planned obsolesce look like.

“Design has helped create our wasteful society, and it will be crucial in building a cleaner future,” says exhibition co-curator Justin McGuirk. “That means rethinking the lifestyles and materials that do so much damage. There is so much we can do, but it begins with understanding our waste.”

James Shaw takes brightly coloured molten plastic and turns them into drinks trolleys and other pieces (Damian Griffiths)
James Shaw takes brightly coloured molten plastic and turns them into drinks trolleys and other pieces (Damian Griffiths)

In a spirit of optimism and activism, the exhibition presents a a raft of waste-conscious designs that – albeit not widely available yet – are beginning to permeate the market.

On display are an ombre rocking chair by the Dutch designer Dirk van Der Kooij made the plastic from defunct fridges, recycled glass and ceramic tiles developed by the English sustainable surface manufacturer Alusid for Topps Tiles and a selection of pastel-toned K-briq – a brick made almost entirely from recycled construction waste and developed by Scottish start-up Kenoteq.

The obvious choice to cut down on design waste is to not buy anything new at all, and to look for second hand items as a next best choice. But, if after you get down to the nitty-gritty of energy saving home improvements like pipe insulation, you are in need of a new sideboard, floor or piece of homeware, the exhibition proves that conscious and innovative choices are becoming more available.

Manchester-based Foresso produces an environmentally friendly timber version of terrazzo (Handout)
Manchester-based Foresso produces an environmentally friendly timber version of terrazzo (Handout)

An inspiring companion to the show is Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure, a book by the design writer and circular economy champion Katie Treggiden presents 30 designers working with rubbish.

Among them is the British designer James Shaw, whose playful furniture and homeware pieces are made up of brightly coloured plasticine-like blobs of molten plastic sourced from recycling plants around the country as well as the ocean.

Likewise, the Liverpool-based homeware company Granby Workshop founded by the Turner Prize-winning arts group Assemble produces an inventive range of tableware, tiles, lamps and mantlepieces from problematic trash – this time made from building rubble, ceramic and glass.

Resourceful choices for construction, flooring and surfaces are also popping up. British practice Giles Miller Studio has developed a series of tiles made from by-products of wine production.

The Eco Range, produced in collaboration with Italian design studio High Society, also includes tiles made from star carbon-sequester hemp, as well coffee and tobacco.

Manchester-based Foresso produces an environmentally friendly timber version of terrazzo, where wooden offcuts and sawdust are set into a bio-resin to create a sheet material that can be used for furniture, floors and worktops. London-based Smile Plastics offers its recycled plastic counterpart.

The company melts down old chopping boards, yoghurt pots and bottles to create a range of colourful mottled designs. In an often overlooked step in the circular economy, Smile Plastics will also take back the product at the end of its life.

“With 100% recycled and -able materials, Smile Plastics has now closed the loop by launching a new buyback scheme,” it says.

For the time being these, as with all new products, are novel and expensive options, but they are a tantalising glimpse of what a home built from trash could look like.

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