Home > iDEAL Focus > Features > Upcycling China's waste
Upcycling China's waste
2013-06-04

Nothing in China goes to waste. Leave a broken oven on the street for an hour, and some thrifty individual will whisk it away to give it a new lease on life. Put an item in the recycling bin, or the trash, and every last piece of recoverable metal will be stripped from it.

Despite that, there is a resistance in China to buying new things made of old objects. There's a new-is-better mentality, richer people can afford new things, and there's a reluctance to use something used by another person.

A few designers have taken the ethos of "waste not, want not" on board, however, and they are creating beautiful, useful and inventive items from China's rubbish.

Chinese biscuit tins and old Shanghai houses may not sound like the stuff attractive furniture is made of, but Jonas Merian from Switzerland is proving that beautiful things can be made from the unlikeliest of materials.

Merian was working for a prosthetics company, but he began to grow tired of PowerPoint presentations and spread sheets, and longed to create things himself. So in 2010 Merian quit his job, and he and his wife, Nina, found an abandoned warehouse in Wuwei Creative Garden in northeast Shanghai's Yangpu District, which they renovated to create a living space and studio. It's home for the couple and their 18-month-old daughter, Anna.

Funds were limited, so Merian began looking at cheap ways to get the things they needed. The Shanghai houses that were being destroyed to make way for new high-rises became his supply store - the couple's floorboards were stripped from the old houses, and he made tables from the leftover wood.

Merian found the older, used wood brought a special something to his designs. "You can see it has been used for something before, it has some history," he says in a recent interview at his studio cum living space. "It looks nicer than any sterile product that you get, which is produced in the millions."

And upcycling - taking something used and making it into something of greater value - has other benefits: It's environmentally friendly. "I think the whole environmental thing for me is more a positive side effect," he says.

From there, his ideas only expanded, and he began using all sorts of waste products to make furniture, which he sells at markets all over Shanghai. "I have to work with a lot of different materials because I get bored very quickly," he says.

Old Chinese biscuit tins from thrift shops became bookshelves, tables, benches and iPod speaker systems. Suitcases became speakers, kettles became light shades and wine bottles became lamps - some of which are being exhibited at Shanghai Glass Museum. A shipping pallet was converted into four sofa chairs, which could be clipped together to make a guest bed for visitors.

But Merian says one downside of repurposed materials is the extra work they require. It can take a long time to draw old nails out of wood, and tins can require a lot of cleaning. After all his effort, there is little demand for his wares.

"People who can afford it are a little bit older, and these are the people who actually know these kinds of tins from their old times," he says. "And they just want to get rid of all that stuff and furnish their apartment with IKEA furniture."

Currently there are a handful of people in Shanghai doing similar things to him, but Merian hopes the interest in upcycling will continue growing in Shanghai.

"The more people do that, the more people learn about it and it becomes a more accepted concept," he says.

Old ships

Year after year, old boats are abandoned and dragged onto river banks or coastal shores, never to sail again. But thanks to the efforts of New Zealand designer Logan Komorowski, the ships are given a new lease of life.

Komorowski and his team dismantle the boats, dry the weathered wood and turn the wood into contemporary furniture. Based in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, Komorowski's design business, LDK, supplies 22 countries, as well as a Shanghai shop, Casa Pagoda. Recently, LDK opened their first shop in Guangzhou, made from shipping containers.

"What we've tried to do is make nice designs, where it wouldn't matter if it's recycled or not, but because it's recycled, it gives it that extra story," he says over Skype. "So I'm trying to show everybody that you don't have to use a new material to make a nice contemporary product."

Komorowski's interest in used wood started when he was 15, living in West Auckland, He had been helping his next-door neighbor pull down their house and was left with a lot of timber. He ended up making furniture - and promptly fell in love with woodworking and design.

"Up until then I'd gone to an all-boy school and been in first 15 rugby, so the art and design thing wasn't exactly prominent at our school."

He set up a small demolition team with some of his rugby mates, and turned the wood from old villas into furniture. After a stint in Los Angeles and a design degree at Unitec, in Auckland, he found himself designing at furniture factories in Guangzhou.

By 2005, Komorowski had grown sick of working with factories where no one really cared about the effects of the mass, large-scale production, and decided to establish his own business, and then his own factory. He set up a supply chain of around 15-20 village elders along the coast who call when a boat is available. He has nine people on his design team who work with him from concept to execution.

It's the wood's character and uniqueness that attracts Komorowski. "I think there's just a depth to the material that you can't do with a new material," he says. "It's like a vintage car, it's just got character to it. It's just got something instilled in it. The good thing about recycled wood is you don't have to do much with it. You just let it be the center of attention and build everything around it."

It isn't just old ships that catch Komorowski's eye - he's made old shipping containers into showrooms for clients such as Heineken, and wants to use some as holiday homes in the Philippines.

"Oh! And we've just started this thing with oil drums," he says. The team properly clean the drums before converting them into side tables.

Unlike Merian, Komorowski sees a lot of interest in the Asian market. "They seem to have a real big thirst at the moment for environmentally friendly products, they're a lot more design savvy."

Though China has a lot of waste, it also has a great recycling system to reuse it, he says. "It's just that because it's not like back home where we've got the green wheelie bin sitting outside, we don't necessarily see it happen."

From rice straw to textiles

In 2008, Bernadette Casey, co-owner of the New Zealand-based textile company The Formary, was asked by a friend to write a chapter of a book on sustainable textiles. Knowing nothing about it, she began researching, and was shocked by what she discovered.

"I just thought, we're doing this the wrong way," she says in a Skype interview. "You know, there's millions of tons of fiber that go to waste every year and could be reused or more efficiently used."

While one of her team members, Nick Gerritsen, was in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, researching another project, he noticed a lot of rice straw was going to waste. Some of it was being turned into matting, some was dug into the ground as organic compost, but a lot was being burned, contributing air pollution.

The Formary were inspired to do something with the waste rice straw, and worked with Massey University in Wellington on the project. After two years of development, they produced a heavyweight upholstery textile that is 70-percent New Zealand wool, and 30 per cent rice straw sourced from Tianjin.

In addition to feeling great, it is strongly flame-retardant and durable thanks to its high silica content, and will be processed in a sustainable way, Casey says.

The product, which will be manufactured in China, is expected to be commercialized in October this year, after the rice harvest. The humble rice straw may soon find its way into hotels, cafes, and living spaces in the United States and Europe, particularly those with an ethos of sustainability.

"By turning it into a textile, we're actually upcycling it," she says. "We're taking it from a product of little value and turning it into a much higher value product."

Previously, The Formary had worked with other waste products and turned them into textiles, most notably Starbucks coffee bean bags. That project gave them the confidence to create more sustainable products, including three upcoming projects using agricultural waste.

Casey wants to look at alternatives to cotton - not just rice straw. The population is growing, so within the next 40 years, in order to feed the growing global population, farmers will have to produce 50 percent more food, she says.

"If we can also get our textiles from the same crop that's used for food, we're using that land far more efficiently than growing crops like cotton that are used just for their textiles," she says.

"We'd be crazy not to look at it, not to look at the resources we have and how to use them more efficiently," Casey says. "We've only got one planet, and we've got limited resources."

To see more of Jonas Merian's designs, visit jonasdesign.net.

Leave a comment
Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164