A/D/O by MINI | Food Waste Becomes Furniture and Fashion

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Product/Industrial/Furniture

Food Waste Becomes Furniture and Fashion

Coffee beans into lamps. Orange peel into T-shirts. Eggshells into tabletops. Designers are becoming increasingly resourceful with our food waste.

An estimated one-third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) of the United Nations, with higher-income countries contributing the most. In addition to the social and economic implications of food waste, there is also a significant environmental impact. When we waste food, we also waste the energy and natural resources it takes to grow, harvest, package, transport and market the food. 

Not only that, food waste rotting in landfills generates enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, which is a pollutant even more harmful than carbon dioxide. To put it into perspective, if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind the US and China, according to the FAO. With this in mind, we take a look at some of the most exciting designers tackling this issue and giving food waste a new life.

Founded by Giulia Casaro and Johannes Kiniger in 2015, High Society is a South Tyrol-based design studio transforming the leftovers from local industries into lighting and furniture. “Italy is renowned for its food but less for its valuable secondary resources, such as byproducts of food production,” Casaro told The Journal.

“Each year, tons of waste is produced that can be turned into something beautiful and useful.” After initial research of organic waste resources that could be transformed into biomaterials, the studio spent three years developing the materials to get them market-ready.

For the Senilia collection, unveiled this year at Warsaw Home fair, the duo turned waste from local beer and coffee production into sculptural, tubular lamps that are fully biodegradable and recyclable. First, discarded coffee bean peels (also known as ‘silver skins’) and leftover barley and hops are shredded and processed into a powder.

“The powder is then mixed with a compostable binder and put through an extruder that ejects it under high-pressure through a pipe,” explained Casaro. “The material is turned into a tubular structure that is then handcrafted into twisted shapes and air-dried for three days.” High Society has also worked with the byproducts from hemp, wine and tobacco production for its Highlight collection of lampshades. 

By upcycling waste from local industries and aiming not to create any additional waste through its production process, Casaro said the main benefit of working with food byproducts is helping to reduce their carbon footprint. However, it’s not without challenges, especially when it comes to performance and durability.

“Organic resources aren’t easy to work with because they degrade easily and are less resistant,” she said. “We develop all of our materials from scratch – and this is fun, but also challenging and risky because you never know if they will be strong enough to produce products until the end of the development cycle, which can take years.”

In Southern Italy, Adriana Santonocito and Enrica Arena are using leftovers from industrial citrus juice squeezing to create a silk-like material to make clothes. In 2014, the creative pair founded Orange Fiber in Catania where thousands of tons of citrus fruits are juiced each year.

Through a patented process that Santonocito developed during her time as a design student in Milan, cellulose is extracted from orange peels using chemical reagents to create a yarn that can be combined with other materials to create a soft silk-like material. In 2017, Salvatore Ferragamo was the first luxury brand to use Orange Fiber in a collection. Later on, H&M also rolled out a Conscious Collection using the innovative fabric.

“Food waste is such a tremendous issue and there are still so many people who don’t care about it,” said Geneva-born, Tokyo-based designer Kosuke Araki. “I intended to put the issue back on the table.” As a student at the Royal College of Art in London, in 2013, Araki initiated a project to document food waste from local markets and shops as well as his own kitchen, and to experiment with how it could be used as a material for products.

The result was Food Waste Ware, a collection of simple-yet-elegant bowls he created by burning discarded organic waste into charcoal and then combining it with a glue made from animal bones and skins.

More recently, in 2018, Araki revealed his Anima collection, a range of sleek black tableware that builds off of Food Waste Ware. The handcrafted pieces were, again, made from mixing the charcoal of food waste with animal materials, but this time he added a new ingredient: urushi (a Japanese lacquer).

Used since the Stone Age, urushi provides both practical strength and a delicate sheen to the tableware. When asked about how he sees his practice evolving in the next couple of years, Araki said he currently crafts everything by hand is looking into whether it’s possible to use industrial methods to scale his production process.

In an attempt to find sustainable alternatives to acetate for glasses frames, British eyewear brand Cubitts recently designed 10 prototype frames from various waste materials ranging from human hair to mushroom mycelium. One of the stylish frames were created in collaboration with London-based bioplastic innovation startup Chip[s] Board using potato offcuts coming from one of the largest frozen food manufacturers, McCain Foods. 

Chip[s] Board, founded by designers Rowan Minkley and Robert Nicoll, produces a range of bioplastic materials using non-food grade industrial potato waste that it claims to be “durable, recyclable and biodegradable… and contain no toxic chemicals.”

By combining potato scraps with other agricultural waste byproducts such as coffee grounds, pine flour and oak shavings, the Chip[s] Board materials can vary in their look and feel, which is ideal for fashion and interior design applications. For instance, emerging British fashion designer Isabel Fletcher crafted buttons with Chip[s] Board’s Parblex material for her Offcut One project, which aims to change attitudes around textile waste.

Meanwhile, Switzerland-based design innovation company Nature Squared uses an age-old East Asian inlaying technique to incorporate discarded eggshells from farms and bakeries into tailored furniture and furnishings. By roasting and coloring the shells, Nature Squared, which was founded by Lay Koon Tan and Paul Hoeve in 2000, creates special patterns, colors and textures to cater to various uses. Its eggshell tabletops resembling snakeskin are housed in renowned London restaurant Ella Canta while its display tabletops can be seen in the “Shoe Heaven” section of the department store Harrods.

“The challenge is very clear: eggshell is a very delicate material which it takes a huge amount of skill to work with,” explained Tan. “In fact, only our most skilled artisans can work with eggshell and we have to combine their skills with solutions developed by our material experts, chemists and engineers.”

In addition to eggshells, Nature Squared works with a number of waste materials to create beautiful design objects, including leaves, seeds, barks, sea shells, bones and feathers. Like High Society and Kosuke Araki, Nature Squared aims to combine innovative production processes with craftsmanship.

With the amount of food waste we’re producing each year, it’s clear that there won’t be a shortage in the supply of this material anytime soon. While mindsets about waste are beginning to shift, it looks like more time, research and experimentation are required before these kinds of techniques will have widespread adoption. Perhaps, most importantly, we need to deeply reconsider our relationship to food and nature, as Casaro from High Society puts it: “Not only are we committed to finding solutions and alternatives to unsustainable materials, we want to recover a genuine connection between Mother Nature and human beings.”

Text by Charmaine Li.

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