Constructing Waste: Upcycling and Rethinking Trash- a workshop at Swissnex

The weekend following Tuesday’s talk I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop at Swissnex: Constructing Waste: Upcycling and Rethinking Trash. The goals of the workshop were to rethink some of the waste streams we have here in San Francisco and look for opportunities to both reduce waste and develop a new product or cycle from the current waste or recycling stream.

People from diverse backgrounds attended the workshop, from business management, to high school teachers, to designers of many types (architecture, product, and visual). After a brief breakfast, introduction and quick brainstorming session, we paired off into teams of 2, each focusing on our product/waste stream of choice.

My partner and I investigated the K-cup, the one-time-use coffee pod whose popularity has exploded over the past couple of years. Because the K-cups are composed of multiple components in one package (dubbed a “monstrous hybrid” by William McDonough), they aren’t easily recycled by consumers and instead go straight to landfill. If one person drinks two cups of coffee per day, that amounts to 14 cups/week, and 728 cups/year.  Last year alone, 13 billion K-cups went to landfill.

Even if well-intentioned consumers separate the ingredients- (recycling the aluminum and composting the coffee grounds), the cup itself is composed of a plastic meant to withstand high heat and pressure, and is typically not considered recyclable. Though some DIYers have found some niche uses for the cups there are only so many crafts you can make before you will be overflowing with cups. Some manufacturers have attempted replacing the product with paper cups (which would allow the entire object to be composted) but nobody has been able to produce a paper cup that can handle the pressure and match the performance of the existing plastic design.

My partner and I recognized that the K-cup is a product borne out of convenience: pop a pod in, push a button, and boom, delicious cup of coffee. We recognized that the act of dealing with the waste needed to be just as convenient. At first we imagined that the components could be separated within the consumer’s coffee maker, which could house a canister of coffee grounds, aluminum, and the plastic pods to be processed by the local waste management company. However, we wondered, What would motivate a consumer to pay for the extra hardware and bulk that additional separating functionality would require? And what about locations where recycling and composting programs did not exist?

Instead we envisioned a mail-back system wherein the aluminum, coffee grounds, and capsule would be processed at an industrial facility. Purchase the cups in the tray, and after use, put the cup back in the tray, affix the provided shipping label, and leave it on the porch for pickup. The tray interfaces with the industrial process to rapidly separate the components. Separated aluminum can then be sent to the metal recycling plant, and coffee grounds will be composted. The plastic can be processed in several ways: melted down, ground up and included in a composite material, or repurposed in its existing form and re-manufactured as a drainage fabric used for green roofs, walls, and foundation pours, or even an alternative to packing peanuts.

While we were rethinking the K-cup waste stream, other groups were inventing and imagining an array of products and processes:

  • A bike basket made out of bike spokes, with a removable inner lining made from bike tire tubes
  • A machine that recycles paper on school campuses by reducing them to pulp, and repressing it into paper, dubbed “the pulpr”.
  • Hybridized felt made from worn out clothing, used as small scale desalination machines.
  • An online hub that connects manufactures to designers and recyclers and provides a place to share ideas and find products, dubbed ReSOURCE.
  • A printer that fuses plastic and paper packaging into a new fabric for consumer use.
  • An origami tetrapak that replaces polyethylene with sox wax, and reduces or eliminates adhesives, designed in the shape of a building block.

In the spirit of competition, three winners were declared by authors and workshop facilitators Marta H. Wisniewska and Felix Heisel. I am delighted to share that my partner and I were recipients of one of the prizes, and due to the generosity of Birkhauser, we each got to take home two new books, including “Building from Waste: Recovered Materials in Architecture and Construction” – the book that catalyzed the workshop and lecture, which I can now highly recommend! The real prize, however, was getting to spend a day with so many creative thinkers incited to rethink the status quo and imagine a world without waste.