We are producing waste at an alarming rate – in Europe, we currently use 16 tonnes of material per person per year, of which 6 tonnes become waste. From unwanted food to industrial byproducts, our graduating students are rethinking waste as raw material and here, we speak to just a few of them.
“A cathedral of rubbish” is how Cameron Bray, M ARCH Architecture, describes SELCHP, the South East London Combined Heat and Power facility in Surrey Quays. Dealing with the waste from four London boroughs, SELCHP incinerates up to 460,000 tonnes annually producing electricity and heat for local homes. Bray lived nearby and became intrigued about both what happens inside the rather mysterious building but also how the facility reflected a wider civic relationship to waste.
“In many ways, incineration is considered best practice and renewable. But that position is also a mask for large companies to avoid paying landfill tax… Rubbish has become a resource that creates energy but that has removed the incentive to produce less rubbish. Waste is a business, the companies are paid by the tonne to dispose of waste, the more waste the better.”
Moving away from incineration and embracing current ideas of decentralising energy and waste management, Bray began rethinking how a local centre could work. His project, Matter Out of Place proposes foundational changes such as sorting waste properly so any material that could have a new life is saved from incineration. He also suggests an anaerobic digester to process 15,000 tonnes of food waste annually producing a biogas which could run through the existing furnace to produce electricity. The digester would also produce delightfully named digestate slurry, a powerful fertiliser for nearby gardens. But there are plenty of unexpected moments in the design including a rooftop bar as well as a swimming pool and sauna heated by the digester and on-site composting.
In Bray’s world, rubbish has civic value encouraging re-use but also directly powering leisure facilities. Waste isn’t vanished away but processed in a passive and transparent way. “The bin isn’t a black hole, the consequences of which you never have to deal with,” he says, “the way in which we classify what is dirty is a social thing. It’s good to rethink what’s dirty and what’s wholesome.”
Thinking about the social construction of what is wholesome or dirty is a good moment to introduce Bray’s fellow M ARCH classmate, Finian Orme. Why Cow Shit Matters looks to resolve the expensive farming problem of the 36 million tonnes of toxic waste produced by UK cattle. Could agricultural waste become a future construction material?
Working with the ever-popular anaerobic-digester, Orme takes the resulting solid digestate and mixes it with clay and water to create The Shit Brick. Alongside his material investigations, Orme proposed The Centre for Alternative Farming, an educational platform for the future of farming.
It's not just animal effluent attracting our students' attention this year. Human urine gets a transformation in Qinming Feng’s proposed MA Art and Science installation. Questioning if human can produce useful waste themselves, he has designed a urinal that 3D prints urine.
Moving away from the biological, there are many projects this year working with industrial and consumer waste. Some use intensive hand skills, for example Alexandra Sipa, BA Fashion, has created extraordinary lace out of discarded electrical wire and Mizuki Tochigi, BA Jewellery Design, combines brass with shredded plastic water bottles to make intricate wearable formations.
Others use chemical processes to uncover the potential of waste. Seonmin Kang, MA Material Futures, looked to the mollusc industry seeing that increasing demand for the sustainable food source meant increasing amounts of waste shells which over time, in landfill produce toxic gases. Adapting the Moroccan tedlakt technique she has created a series of contemporary furniture designs with pebble-like surfaces. Yi Yin, MA Design (Ceramics), has invented a “environmentally low-impact” process to turn discarded ceramics into new and useable forms. Yin was focused on ceramic production in China, where nine million tonnes of ceramic waste is produced each year. Fired ceramic is non-biodegradable and often this waste is dumped into the landscape with polluting implications on both the water and the plant life. Yin created a process that – crucially without introducing another material element – turns the waste into a formable terrazzo-like body.
Also inspired by waste streams in ceramic production, Sara Howard, BA Ceramic Design, spent her final year studies exploring how she could change production methods to be more ecological. If current consumption rates continue, over the next decade several of the raw materials used in ceramic production will run out. Howard began thinking about possible ways to bring waste material into ceramic production to replace raw materials.
Looking to both the glass and stone industry, she identified silica and flux materials in slurries created during cutting and polishing – waste by-products that can be toxic when not disposed of correctly – that potentially could replace the typical materials in ceramic manufacturing. By transforming waste from one industry into the raw material for another, Howard creates what she refers to as an "industrial symbiosis" reducing waste from production and also finite raw material extraction.
She brought the slurry into the ceramics workshop and began replacing ingredients in traditional glaze recipes. After plenty of trials, tweaking ratios and kiln temperatures, Howard had a range of subtle hues and surface textures:
“You can have a glaze that uses 60% waste or 100% waste and it varies the outcomes. The last thing I want is for everyone’s ceramics to look the same.”
The designer introduced her innovations to studio potters, working one-on-one, but as lockdown arrived, she compiled everything into a how-to publication Circular Ceramics. The potential good from connecting just two industrial manufacturers means that Howard is currently approaching companies with her new methods. Her material curiosity hasn’t stopped; she has turned her attention to the clay itself. For every tonne of clay quarried there are nine tonnes of waste, but with Howard hoping to transform construction waste into usable clay, the future looks a little less wasteful.
All these projects ask us to open our eyes to the value in discarded things, to have the imagination and ingenuity to make them anew. But for one project in this year's Graduate Showcase, it's not the remaking but the undoing that is the focus. For his BA Graphic Communication Design project Debris, Sam Todd created a chain of destruction in which participants offered up a “worthless object” and, in turn, got to destroy someone else’s. It all began as an exploration of Freud’s Death Drive and developed into an archive of material demolition. Debris presents the original object, a film of the transformation and documentation of the final state, be it in splinters, shards or simply dust.
“My whole practice revolves around materiality and tactility… I noticed that people got more excitement, more release when destroying someone else’s thing. It’s like destroying someone else’s sandcastle on the beach; in adult life you don’t really get to do that. Here, there’s no choice to make, no loss, no consequence.”
For the next stage, Todd plans to incorporates the leftovers into bricks as a tribute to the traditional practice of combining household waste in brick production. With Debris, it’s clear that material is never destroyed, only transformed, and with it its meaning and worth.