Furniture made from cigarette butts and Nike shoe soles, rugs from old jumpers, and fruit bowls from smartphone screens – welcome to the House of Trash, which opened in Milan earlier this year to show the world’s design capital that landfill can be lifestyle.
The company behind the project – Miniwiz – is the brainchild of Arthur Huang, an architect and structural engineer. Increasingly shocked by the amount of consumer waste being dumped, he set out to explore alternatives.
“I knew that just hating waste won’t make it go away,” he says. “There’s already enough metal, enough plastic to support our economy many times over. There’s a huge abundance of premium grade trash to use and re-use as base-source content for new products.”
Miniwiz sees waste as a valuable resource, not rubbish. Some 70 engineers and scientists in its Trash Lab – out of 80 staff in total – collect consumer and industrial garbage and process it for reuse.
The 13-year-old Taipei-based firm has created 1,200 new materials, many of which are being used in fabric, construction, consumer products and – perhaps most ambitious of all – the wings on a two-seater aircraft that Huang intends to fly (once he’s finished his pilot training).
“We will fly with a trash wing,” he says proudly. “We had to invent a new material. It’s a carbon fibre-like material. It’s taken two years’ R&D (research and development), but we’re almost there.”
Miniwiz has created a miniature wind turbine and solar panel from electronic waste and paper that can charge smartphones.
And in 2010 it built a nine-floor 130-metre building from bricks made out of 1.5 million plastic bottles for a Taipei garden festival – fully tested for structural strength and with retardants against fire risk.
Huang admits not all the materials are fit for purpose (a small boat sank). “But we must not be afraid to fail,” he says, although he has had enough successes to win the 2015 Davos World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneer Award.
Turning base metal into gold is only part of the challenge, however. Persuading manufacturers to use recycled material and convincing consumers they are fit for purpose has its own problems.
Says Huang: “The most sophisticated textile plants and machine manufacturers will not use recycled materials, because it requires investment and they don’t see a market. Manufacturing processes are optimised for linear supply chains. It’s a chicken and egg situation.”
Miniwiz is trying to create a silk-like material out of plastic. “We feel like we’re getting close, but take-up is still very slow.
“If someone wants a silk shirt, they want a certain feel and quality, a certain weight. When a designer looks at our stuff, they say: ‘Great concept, great idea, but it is just not up there.’”
Undeterred, Miniwiz is turning the House of Trash into a community office and display centre which he hopes will become a hub for working with recycled materials. “We want to work with the new generation of creatives and designers,” he says.
He does, however, already work with big names: Nike, Coca-Cola, Marriott hotels and Starbucks.
At Marriott, Miniwiz is trying to develop a pillow that matches the hotel chain’s existing products. At Nike, it is working on recycled sneakers.
Says Huang: “I get to play with their data. At Nike I get to know the specification of a fine knit shoe. How strong is the yarn? What is the weather-proofing? “We want to create recycled materials that compete with existing performance.” – BBC