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Newspaper Wood can be sawed, molded and varnished and made into different shapes for a variety of applications

Seven upstarts of materials upcycling

Image credit: Newspaper Wood

Today’s dominant production model creates vast amounts of waste. However, engineers and designers are finding increasingly imaginative ways to repurpose industrial by-products into valuable new materials.

What’s not to like about the idea of a ‘circular economy’? Unlike our current economic model, where products follow a straight line from factory to consumer to landfill, a circular economy would see products designed with a view to being re-used, and new materials would be made from exhausted goods.

It’s a nice idea and easy to get behind. A 2018 study by the EU’s Eurobarometer showed people like the notion and many said they would be willing to change their lifestyle choices to live more sustainably. That said, the researchers drily note that “there might be a discrepancy between what people say about their circular economy behaviours and what they actually do”.

Introducing a circular economy would involve a huge overhaul of how our complex, globally interlinked supply chains work. From cars to washing machines, chipboard to plastics, creating a genuine circular economy would involve an unprecedented change to the production process.

All the same, some companies and designers are exploring the possibilities and coming up with new materials that offer a vision of a less wasteful future. The following seven ideas give a hint of what a truly circular economy might look like.

NewspaperWood

On first glance, it looks like a normal plank of wood. But, get closer and you notice some rather unnatural colours in the grain. This is NewspaperWood, the idea of Dutch designer Mieke Meijer.

Meijer’s company has found a way to press used newspapers into rolls – or ‘logs’ – that can be used in much the same way as normal wood. The company says its ‘wood’ can be sawn, sanded and varnished.

The process involves gluing used newsprint from a local press in Eindhoven and rolling it up (they stress that their glue is free of solvents or plasticisers and is therefore biodegradable). Because the newsprint is pressed in a roll, you get patterns reminiscent of the rings of a tree; the planks also warp or develop unique cracks, just like the real thing.

The company notes that the material is not especially strong – it can’t be used as a structural component in, say, a building or a wardrobe. However, for individual components it makes for a unique design. The firm also stresses that the material isn’t intended as a large-scale alternative for wood production, nor paper recycling.

It does, however, show how new and valuable materials can be made from the most everyday of items. Indeed, Vij5, a Dutch design firm that uses NewspaperWood, sells a bedside table made from the material for €1,635. Not bad for yesterday’s news.

Lightweight Tiles

With the issue of plastic waste firmly in the public consciousness, there’s growing support for recycling. The problem is that most plastic can only be recycled a handful of times before becoming unusable – at this point it either gets burnt or send to landfill.

This is where firms like Gloucestershire’s Lightweight Tiles come in. The company make a range of roofing tiles made from 50 per cent recycled polymers, sourced from waste management firm Biffa. The tiles come in a range of colours and are a good fit for conservatories, sheds and pre-fab housing, as well as industrial units.

Besides looking smart and near-identical to traditional roofing tiles, they are sold with a guarantee of 25 years. This approach, whereby durable materials are created that will last for decades, seems like a clever way of making the most of used plastic.

Chip[s] Board

Some people like their potatoes cut into sticks and deep-fried. Others like them roasted. You might prefer them mashed. How about as frames for your sunglasses? Or buttons on your new jacket?

Chip[s] Board, which won a recent award from the Royal Academy of Engineering, has devised a way of making a unique new bio-plastic from the by-products of the potato industry. The firm sources much of its raw material from food business McCain.  

Rob Nicoll, the company’s co-founder, explains that they source potato offcuts then put them “through a few scientific processes in order to create our Parblex bio-plastic”. They combine this with other waste feed stocks such as wood flour from the timber production industry. “These Parblex composites will come in pellet form and be used within applications such as injection moulding and 3D printing.”

To begin with, the firm focused on creating a kind of MDF wood (hence the name Chip[s] Board) but it has found demand for its products in the fashion industry – although Nicoll says the material could be used in many other applications where traditional plastics are used. What’s more, the plastics can eventually be composted.

Sunflower Enterprise

Eindhoven-based Studio Thomas Vailly has created a range of materials from by-products of the sunflower seed industry. After the plant’s seeds have been removed and their oil ground out, the rest of the plant usually goes to waste. But Studio Thomas Vailly upcycles the waste into new materials.

Some of the firm’s products include a kind of polystyrene made from the sunflower’s marrow, while the bark’s fibres are heat-pressed into a hardboard. The firm also uses the ‘presscake’ (the leftovers of seeds once all the oil has been removed) to make a glue-like product, which can be used to make a varnish.

The end products are varied: the studio has produced bolts, insulation panels, bio-boards and an iPhone case – which is certainly better than leaving dead plants to rot in the fields.  

Eggshell battery

Most chicken eggshells are discarded as soon as their contents have been fried, poached or scrambled. However, a study conducted at a German battery research centre has revealed that they might be worth keeping.

Researchers at the Helmholtz Institute Ulm washed, dried and ground the eggshells into a fine powder. They then built a test cell where this powder, which is rich in calcium carbonate, was used as an electrode against a metallic lithium anode. The scientists found that the system had promising electrochemical properties and was able to store and release charge well.

While this is certainly early days, the results of the experiment were exciting. The team report that the test cell maintained capacitance retention of 92 per cent after more than one thousand charges. A big drawback of many of today’s lithium-ion batteries is that they lose capacity after as little as 500 charges. What’s more, they are still pretty expensive to produce compared to other kinds of battery. With eggshells plentiful, the costs could fall dramatically – all while upcycling a material that would otherwise go to waste.

Bahia Denim

With the concept of ‘fast fashion’ currently under fire, one designer is turning the offcuts of the denim industry into something new. Sophie Rowley is a Berlin-based designer whose Bahia Denim material provides an interesting idea of how the industry could become less wasteful.

Rowley collects denim offcuts from jeans manufacturers and layers, glues and binds them into intricate patterns. She says the process of layering jeans is “similar to the making of fibreglass. It basically works as a composite, in which the resin works as a binder and the textile as reinforcement.”

The outcome is a kind of lightweight, blue-y white and smooth material reminiscent of a type of marble known as bahia blue (hence the name). Rowley then uses this material to create Bahia Slate furniture – tables, chairs and other structures. It can also be cut and used in wall panelling for decorative purposes.

Seven Bro7hers cereal beer

Remember your favourite childhood breakfast cereal? Well, now you can have it as a beer. Seven Bro7hers, a brewery in Salford, has teamed up with cereal giant Kellogg’s to upcycle rejected Rice Krispies, Coco Pops and Corn Flakes into a range of beers.

Their Sling It Out Stout, for instance, uses 80kg of overcooked, uncoated or discoloured Coco Pops instead of barley to create a chocolate-flavoured beer. Cereal which fails Kellogg’s quality control would normally be discarded. However, using it to create new beers avoids the waste and turns it into something new.

Your correspondent tried to get his hands on some cans of the beer – for purely journalistic purposes – but the current batch had sold out at the time of writing. A new batch is currently brewing.

While we’re a long way from a world where the ‘circular economy’ is the dominant economic model, some of the materials here give a hint at what that system might look like.

In a circular economy, products would be designed to be reused and repurposed, and by-products would be used more inventively to create new, valuable goods while eliminating waste. And that certainly seems like something to get behind.

Repair and recycle

Design for a circular economy

Have you ever thrown away an otherwise functional phone, toaster or even a refrigerator due to a fault in one specific component? The way that many of today’s products are designed makes replacement and repair difficult – if not impossible. As a result, often perfectly good products get thrown away when all they need is a minor fix.

Commitment to a circular economy would require designers and manufacturers to think more creatively about how products are built, with a view to making them easy to repair or recycle. This would reduce a lot of waste and make goods last longer too (though a cynic might argue that certain products are designed to fail to keep up demand).

Some companies have already begun doing this, however. The Do chair by Orangebox, for example, is an office seat made entirely from recyclable materials. Each component can be easily disassembled and components such as the back fabric clip on and off, to make it easier to recycle.

And it’s not just complex products with many moving parts. Ice cream maker Häagen Dazs is one of a number of companies that have signed up to an initiative called The Loop. Instead of getting ice cream from a one-use plastic and carboard box, consumers in certain US locations get it delivered in an attractive metal tin. Once they’ve finished the ice cream, the tin is collected, washed and filled with more ice cream to be used again. Perfume, soap and food companies have also signed up, and a UK pilot is expected soon.

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