Renovation & Design

Turning trash into treasures

Companies recycling and reusing unlikely items such as diapers and cigarette butts

Matt Flynn / Smithsonian Design Museum

From cigarette butts to old pens, all kinds of waste that formerly was destined for landfills is now being recycled or upcycled, finding its way onto runways and into museums and homes.

This photo provided by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, shows an installation view of the exhibit “Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse,” at the museum in New York. The exhibition is no longer on view at Cooper Hewitt and is currently traveling and on display at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. From cigarette butts to old pens, all kinds of waste that formerly was destined for landfills is now being recycled or “upcycled,&rdqu

From packaging to clothing to cigarette butts, more and more everyday items once destined for landfills are being recycled, composted or upcycled in creative ways. Many of the new products made from waste are finding their way onto fashion runways and into design museums and households.

The company TerraCycle, for example, has devised ways of collecting waste such as ocean plastics, cigarette butts, chewing gum and even dirty diapers, and then processing it so it can have a new life.

"Waste is way more than figuring out how we can deal with a negative. It’s really rather exciting," says TerraCycle’s CEO, Tom Szaky, who loves to put surprising trash items to use. Some of the company’s upcycled products, such as tote bags made from juice pouches and laptop cases made out of retired mail bags, are sold online, by the retailer

Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco and dozens of other U.S. cities, partnering with TerraCycle, are finding it worthwhile to collect and process old cigarette butts and packaging, which is shredded, separating the ash, tobacco and paper from the plastic filters, Szaky says. The ash, tobacco and paper are then composted, and the plastic filters (made from cellulose acetate) are shredded, compounded and turned into plastic pellets to make a variety of products, including park benches. The cigarette recycling ­program in the U.S. is financially supported by the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, he says.

Kiehl’s, Nespresso, Colgate, Tide, Brita and a host of other brands, meanwhile, are finding it advantageous to offer clients ways to recycle their packaging so it doesn’t have to end up in landfills, an eco-friendly effort which gives them cachet among eco-minded consumers.

And a new program about to be launched in Europe, partly paid for by a diaper company there, will distribute publicly accessible odour-proof bins to collect dirty diapers, which will then be recycled into their various components and reprocessed, Szaky says.

Many firms are finding uses for recycled materials at the beginning of the design process. The company ReWall, for example, makes high-performance wall board, exterior and other architectural products out of unwanted packaging materials. ReWall recently worked with the architecture and design firm Bureau V and designer Mary Ping to come up with a futuristic tabletop as part of a commissioned artwork.

"This was one of our first projects using upcycled materials, but it certainly won’t be our last," says Peter Zuspan, founding principal at Bureau V. "It’s definitely the type of thing we’ll see more of in the future."

The tabletop was featured in one of two recent exhibits at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, which looked at ways items many people assume cannot be recycled are transformed. It includes Starbucks packaging, with the famous green logos barely visible in the swirls of pattern, and is part of the museum’s new exhibit, Tablescapes: Designs for Dining. Another show that originated at the Cooper Hewitt, Scraps: Fashion, Textiles and Creative Reuse, is on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center in California through Jan. 14, 2019. It includes an array of textile works from three designers who give new life to waste materials that might otherwise have been thrown away.

One of the designers, Christina Kim, cut up handwoven sari fabric to create a new clothing line. She then utilized every bit of the scraps in other products. The tiniest bits at the end of the process were turned into amulets to be used for necklaces.

And interest in eco-friendly textiles is hardly limited to lesser-known designers. Big clothing labels such as Everlane are making fashionable clothing out of recyclables (in its case a new line of jackets made from recycled PET bottles).

"Designers are looking for alternative ways to produce things, and are paying more attention to what they produce them from," says Matilda McQuaid, who organized the Scraps exhibit and heads the textiles department at Cooper Hewitt.

"People in general are looking at materials in a very new way, with a much greater focus on sustainability."

— The Associated Press


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