How artistic and innovative approaches to upcycling are offering a creative solution to waste.

What is the real essence of Art for Planet Earth? It is making real, tangible change by way of creativity. Tackling the issue of global warming through positivity and artistic inspiration, your contribution to the competition is simple: creativity can make an impact for the better. A better tomorrow achieved through creative thinking. Design and art for change. To better understand how inspiration can become something much bigger, let’s take a look at the core spirit of APE.

Creativity [noun]; the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.

In an age where action is imperative, where making changes to lifestyle and behaviour is a matter of monumental importance, getting to grips with the quintessence of creativity is as important as ever. The Art for Planet Earth reusable glass water bottle embodies this ethos; recycle, reuse. It’s the purest answer to the staggering level of waste that has put our planet in this position. At its most rudimentary, but by no means its most unimaginative, a true creative’s solution to waste is the booming practice of upcycling; the process of taking something whose use has expired and giving it a new, artistic and innovative existence.

Creatives like Nienke Hoogvliet, a design graduate from the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. Together with Tim Jongerius, the designer’s eponymous design agency, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet, bring an art-heavy approach to transforming waste. Take, for example, Sea Me, a beautiful rug that has been crafted from sea algae yarn, knotted by hand into an old fishing net. Growing up near the beach, Hoogvliet’s connection to the sea was fundamental to her research into materials such as seaweed and fish skin; ongoing research into a more sustainable textile industry documented in two self-published books, Seaweed Research and Fish Leather.

Presenting Colors of the Oosterschelde at Dutch Design Week 2015, the designer collected more than 20 species of seaweed from the Dutch coastal national park, their subtly shifting hues showcasing a natural colour palette with potential to be used in yarn and dye; the tones an exquisite example of the impact the natural world can have upon design aesthetics. And, taking creative thinking to its extremes, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet looked to an unlikely raw material in the compelling project, Waterschatten. With 180,000 trees’ worth of it flushed down Dutch toilets every single year, used toilet paper was to be upcycled in this unforgettable body of work.

A collaboration with Dutch Water Authorities Aa & Maas and Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet produced a handsome collection of objects ranging from a table and lighting to decorative bowls; each considered object capable of showing how this most improbable of reclaimed materials can be integrated into contemporary product design. Whether the negative connotations of used toilet paper could ever truly be overcome, Hoogvliet’s project demonstrates that nearly anything can be possible with a little innovation and imagination.

A pair of Amsterdam-based Italian designers, Studio Formafantasma have had their work presented everywhere from the MoMA, New York, to Paris's Centre Georges Pompidou, and have collaborated with esteemed brands including Fendi, Max Mara, and Hermès. Their projects are also acutely aware of societal, historical and political forces; not to mention often deeply rooted in the concept of sustainability.

Commissioned by NGV Australia and Triennale Milano, Ore Streams is a three-year project that focusses upon the upcycling of electronic waste. The duo’s investigations have revealed that just 30% of the West’s e-waste finds its way to appropriate recycling facilities; the remaining 70% frequently shipped illegally to developing countries. Here, the products we’re so quick to dispose of are disassembled in poor working conditions; toxic components often disposed of inappropriately.

Harmful to both environment and worker, this out-of-control consumerism sees a cycle of exploitation in the developing world. Seeking to highlight a practice we prefer to overlook, the designers have created a series of office furniture that repurposes this electronic waste into an appropriate environment. Here humankind’s wastefulness can be considered as we work on the very products that will inevitably continue their sad cyclical lifespan. Should more imaginative creatives not join Formafantasma’s train of thought, that is.

When we’re thinking about waste, it’s important to not simply consider the product itself, but also the processes involved in both the making and disposing of them. The used toilet paper reclaimed by the production of products like those in Nienke Hoogvliet’s Waterschatten project is saved from its former destiny: being burned, a fate that involves more energy used. Equally, there’s huge waste involved in producing the sort of products that end up as the e-waste Formafantasma have tackled; particularly so in the industrial production of alumina, the principal raw material used to manufacture those aluminium laptops and desktop PCs. Bauxite tailings, also known as red mud, is a highly toxic byproduct, some 150 million tonnes of which are produced each year to be left unused in giant pits. Questioning the notion of waste, four Royal College of Art students worked on the thought-provoking From Wasteland to Living Room collection.

We live in a world of increasingly finite resources, so looking to the essence of creativity as a means to solve this issue is more critical than ever. If creating new products is an exercise in waste, then what about using that very waste as the raw material? Which is exactly the question posed by designers Guillermo Whittembury, Joris Olde-Rikkert, Kevin Rouff and Luis Paco Böckelmann.

In From Wasteland to Living Room, the students have worked closely with factories, research labs and ceramicists to repurpose the industrial residue; upcycling it into ceramic bodies, glazes and geopolymer concretes. The result: a show-stopping range of design objects that have turned toxic waste into something that can be celebrated. Through inventiveness, these young creatives have found a new life for a small fraction of the 150 million tonnes of ‘red mud’ produced each year. Their innovation and creativity should serve as inspiration for others seeking to bypass old and wasteful conventions.

Over in Italy, another student project—this time hailing from Milan’s NABA (Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti)—has looked to use a byproduct as the raw material; this time as a solution to wasteful street food vendors. Why anyone would make French fries without without the skin is beyond me, but people do, and as such a fries vendor inevitably produces a mountain of potato peel waste. Inspired by this, design students Simone Caronni, Paolo Stefano Gentile and Pietro Gaeli looked to use this byproduct as a means to solve another wasteful aspect of street food: packaging.

Made up of starches and fibres, after maceration and natural drying, the peeled fragments of skin bond with one other and harden; producing a material that is made up entirely of production waste. One hundred percent biodegradable, the inventive packaging can simply re-enter the circular economy once used, becoming food for animals or fertiliser for plants.

Fun, unconventional and poetic (the solution to packaging waste from fries lies in the very genesis of the fry itself, after all), this is one example of countless projects that are seeing designers turn to nature for solutions to waste. In From Peel to Peel, fellow Italian Emma Sicher combines fruit and vegetable leftovers with bacteria and yeasts to create eco-friendly food packaging and containers that can simply be composted with organic waste when used. Using a similar process, Polish designer Roza Janusz has created a packaging alternative that can be even be eaten after use. In the future, creative minds could shape a world where packaging no longer clogs up the environment, rather brings benefit to the biological cycle of life.

Back to London, where Masters students Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar and Andrew Edwards have founded a new project with its roots in our oceans; The Shellworks an aptly named single-use plastic alternative. Creating a series of Willy Wonkaesque machines to extract the abundant biopolymer, chitin, from seafood waste, the quartet are demonstrating that the process of upcycling can be just as fanciful as the end product; with prototype devices bearing all the quirky allure of Victorian laboratories used to turn discarded lobster shells into a plastic alternative with a myriad of applications.

And staying with seafood, scallop shells purchased from fishermen on the island of Negros in the Philippines (where many conservation projects are underway, particularly in the recovery of damaged plastic fishing nets that are literally choking the region’s waters) are being transformed into luxury design products by multi award-winning London-based designer, Bethan Gray. Part of her Exploring Eden collection—which also features work using goose feathers and East Asian delicacy, abalone—Gray’s Pink Scallop Shell Desk celebrates the vivid wonder of the natural world; the shells’ subtle pink hue a mesmerising sight when repurposed as a luxury material.

Less luxurious, more uncompromising, Berlin-based product designer Tobias Trübenbacher deals with the slaughter industry, asking “if we really need to kill an animal, should we at least appreciate all of its resources?” Concerned with how humanity has lost its connection to the slaughtering of animals in a world of fast-farming and the industrialisation of livestock, Trübenbacher’s brave and bracing Inner Values project takes waste cattle intestines and pigs’ bladders—byproducts of supermarket meat—and transforms them into strangely beautiful soft seating leather.

Perhaps the work that reconnects us most to the world we are losing touch with, Inner Values is as much art as it is product design; provoking a reaction from those who interact with his chairs, questioning their attitude toward the byproduct of an industry they’d prefer remained invisible. Something supposedly repellent becomes something alluring and original. Trübenbacher’s confrontational project is the dictionary definition of creativity, and a stark reminder of our connection to the natural world our industries are putting in danger.

Less cerebral, more functional, is a body of work Central Saint Martins’ graduate, Qiang Huang. Critiquing the environmental impact of bike-sharing schemes and their unregulated growth in China—which has seen over-produced bikes discarded throughout the country’s cities—Huang has founded Bike Scavengers, an upcycling project with social responsibility as focal as environmental concerns.

By June 2018, 20 million shared bikes, from over 60 different shared bike companies, have been left littering the streets, many of the startups already consigned to history. In Bike Scavengers, the designer has repurposed components from these bicycles into functional and thoughtful design pieces; from domestic storage to public seating. Progressing the upcycling campaign to encourage the public to do their own work, Mudguard Lamp is a concept is a simple electronic element that can be purchased to fit inside a bike mudguard that you’ve disassembled yourself. Stimulating public involvement, the solution to a major social and ecological problem can spread exponentially.

Of course not every product in need of upcycling is as abundant as shared bicycles littering the streets, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t find a new life with a little innovation. A collaboration with London-based responsible fashion brand, RÆBURN—who use unwanted fabrics to create innovative designer garments and accessories—LAYER’s Canopy collection comprises four rocking chairs and two screens that upcycle parachute upholstery into high-end design pieces.

The studio, founded by award-winning designer Benjamin Hubert, have a commitment to eco-aware design, and Canopy demonstrates how minimal design intervention can reimagine a discarded material as a truly remarkable, gallery worthy, product; the parachute itself the most expressive element of each piece.

Upcycling has come a long way since turning wooden pallets into garden furniture, using plastic bottles as plant-pots. Today, these inspirational creatives lead a way for others to follow. Creativity is ‘the use of imagination or original ideas to create something’, and the projects here show just how original an approach contemporary designers are taking to repurposing waste; turning one man’s trash into another’s treasure.

The essence of Art for Planet Earth is to make real, tangible change by way of creativity. In an age where waste is literally clogging our planet’s arteries, transforming it intosome thing new is as bold a statement as creatives can make. For the future of recycling, the only way is up.

By James Davidson