A/D/O by MINI | Materials: Bodily Fluids and Waste



Materials: Bodily Fluids and Waste

They might make you squeamish, but urine, excrement and blood are being destigmatized by designers who are turning them into tableware.

Imagine abundant, locally available, and otherwise wasted materials that could be transformed into energy sources, building materials, and dishware; without requiring any additional land, sunlight, or resources to produce. They exist, in the form of human and animal urine, excrement and blood. But next to some of the tech driven “innovations” of today, making these substances seem like sexy or flashy biomaterials is a challenge.

An aversion to them is understandable. Bodily waste can legitimately be unsafe to handle and is classified as a biohazardous material. Even when it is rendered safe and free of any pathogens, it can seem gross on a visceral level. But as we grapple with what a planet of 7 billion people consumes, produces and wastes, understanding ways to mitigate the impact and appreciate the value of excrement is a critical piece of the equation. 

Italy's Museo Della Merda offers food-safe tableware made from cow manure.

Luckily, select designers are destigmatizing animal and human waste, and making use of it. Rather than entering landfills or the oceans, and having detrimental ecological impacts, biosolids, urine and human blood can instead be transformed into objects of the everyday. While most are small artisan productions, they present a framework to rethink our relationship to our own waste – rendering it both safe and useful. 

Probably some of the least appealing materials, excrement and urine, are bountiful and complicated. Human and animal excrement has long been used as fertilizer, as a construction material, and as a source of fuel. In contrast, the excrement that is not processed often pollutes our waterways, releases methane gas, and overloads ecosystems with nutrients leading to eutrophication and contamination rendering the water toxic. 

The "merdacotta" range also includes vases, as part of a wider initiative to inform public opinion.

Il Museo Della Merda celebrates cow excrement through beautifully crafted terracotta style pottery. Founder Gianantonio Locatelli created an educational museum to inform the public about uses of excrement. He also developed a method to turn the waste from his dairy cows into a set of enticing products, including a line of dishware that is food-safe. Eating off manure is a provocative concept that is much more promising in practice than in theory.

Using a similar process of applying heat, a group at Australia's RMIT University is using “biosolids” to create bricks. While these are still in development, their research shows these bricks use less energy to produce than mainstream options, require no new materials, are just as strong, and act as a better insulator. Besides the initial smell and hazard of the material, once it is processed it poses no risk.

Ellie Birkhead's Building the Local project involved creating bricks from waste materials.

The format of the brick acts both metaphorically and functionally as a building block of the future. In her project Building the Local, Ellie Birkhead created a series of bricks out of waste local to Chiltern Hills in England, for both environmental and cultural reasons. She used manure along with hair swept up in barber shops, spent grain and recycled glass – each with its own unique and advantageous properties – in order to create a series of bricks.

“Globalization is posing an economic threat to small-scale industry,” Birkhead said. “The decline in local industry means a break down in networks where manufacturers once supported one another by sharing skills and materials.” The bricks “rebuild the web of industry” as well as prove the value of the disregarded. Birkhead deftly presents different forms of waste as having equal value and through doing so raises manure to the level of glass.

Among Birkhead's brick collection includes a set made from manure.

Heating urine to high temperatures also dramatically transforms the material. While studying at Central Saint Martins, designer Sinae Kim experimented with using urine to glaze ceramics. She found that after collecting, distilling, and allowing water to evaporate from urine, it shared properties with glass-based and synthetic glazes. Her Urine Ware series of bladder-shaped vases and tiles coated with the urine glaze are both earthy and shiny.

“It’s a taboo even talking about human waste in public,” Kim told The Journal. “By presenting a waste-related object in a place where it doesn’t seem to belong, for example a kitchen in this case, I believe it can trigger a moment where people think of waste in a totally different way.” She sees her work as contributing to a paradigm shift transforming value perceptions of materials, though she recognizes that the laborious practice of gathering urine and making urine sludge for glazing will be difficult to scale. 

Sinae Kim used human urine to glaze these ceramics. Also main image.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Cape Town have determined how to make bricks out of urine and sand that are as hard as limestone, the BBC reported. Using a process called microbial carbonate precipitation, they used microbes to break down the components of urine into calcium carbonate. This material is one of the valuable building components hidden in urine, along with ammonia, which can be used as a fertilizer. 

Other projects have determined ways to use urine as an energy to power electronics from phones to car batteries. Published in a number of scientific journals, researchers from the Bristol Robotics Lab to Stanford have used microbes to break down urine, and create energy that can then be used in place of electricity. It is not likely that these will become mainstream anytime soon, but they show the merits of a readily available resource and the international interest.

Basse Stittgen works with discarded blood from the meat industry.

Unearthing the narrative behind unusual materials, designer Basse Stittgen uses animal and human blood as the conduit in a complex and emotional way. “Traditionally materials are chosen for their properties, which makes sense but it does not address the environmental impact the material might have – the object tells the story, not the material,” Stittgen told The Journal. “In my work I try to make the material the storyteller.”

Working with the discarded blood from the meat industry, he tells the story of the human-animal relationship. Through dehydrating the blood and then thermoforming it under pressure in a mold, Stittgen created a series of objects including a record made of blood, which plays the heartbeat of the cow it came from. The objective of his work with cow’s blood is to address habits of consumption rather than the waste problem of the slaughterhouse industry.

The blood was dehydrated and thermoformed to create a series of objects.

“I see the industry as the problem itself – not its waste,” he said. “I believe that consumer and producers share a responsibility, but to share responsibility we need to share knowledge,” which his work aims to surface and share to spur questions about how we consume. 

Using the same technical process, Stittgen turned human blood from HIV+ patients into objects. Stittgen was initially ambivalent about the use of human blood, but found a real opportunity to destigmatize not only the substance itself, but also those living with HIV, by creating a sterile object that can be handled.

Stittgen has also used blood from people living with HIV+ to help destigmatize the virus.

“Stigmatization and taboo surrounding HIV are still an immense burden today and they find their physicalization in the blood of an infected person, that is what we are afraid of, the blood,” Stittgen said. Each object is accompanied by an interview with the donor, who speaks about their life and relationship to the disease, highlighting their individual story rather than their medical status. It is emotional, intimate, and humanizing. “There is a huge moral element in both projects,” said Stittgen.

More contentious than most bio materials, projects using human and animal excrement or bodily fluids act as tools to unearth details of process or stigmas. Compared to algae or mycelium, these materials are more familiar and triggering, and the complicated social relationships we have with them limit their development and acceptance. Examples of how these materials can be transformed into high-functioning and beautiful objects starts to undo the disgust or fear and reintroduces discarded matter as something with merit.

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