Living: Designs on your dustbin

Designers are transforming the idea of recycling by turning the stuff we throw away into stylish and ingeniously crafted objects. Jane Withers reports

When you hear the word "recycling", what springs to mind? Those bins, probably, that have sprouted on street corners the length and breadth of Britain into which you hurl, with a satisfying sound of breaking glass, green, brown and white bottles. There are bins now for plastic waste as well as glass and even Oxfam bins for second-hand clothes.

Over the past decade or so, recycling has become a major national activity. In theory, the idea sounds fine. That proliferation of recycling bins makes us look like an environmentally responsible bunch, every one of us an amateur waste disposal and management executive.

The big question, though, is what happens to all the materials, from glass to polypropylene, we assume we are disposing of for recycling? Some, but not all, is re-used; some is squeezed into a small chunk of polymorphous trash and junked.

Increasingly, designers and manufacturers are learning how to make inventive use of recycled materials. Already cars are being made so that, when pulped, a significant part of them will be used to produce their successors. Paper is recycled as every child practising joined-up writing in an exercise book knows.

Recycling, however, is often too worthy a subject for its own good. Birthday cards, toilet rolls and envelopes that proclaim their environmentally friendly properties can be as off-putting to some shoppers as they are an inducement to others. Can recycling ever be fun?

An exhibition currently on show at the Crafts Council - "Recycling: Forms for the Next Century" - suggests that it can be. Louise Taylor of Craftspace Touring has gathered work from 27 designers and makers who have been finding deft new uses for all manner of industrial waste and consumer packaging.

As one might suspect, the usual suspects have been rounded up under the recycling banner. Here you will stumble across folksy rag rugs, wonky toys made from old tins (this use of recycled materials is well known to those fortunate to have trawled street markets in, for example, South Africa and Vietnam, where trains and boats and planes fashioned from discarded Coke cans are a familiar sight) as well as the inevitable wibbly-wobbly jewellery, the sort Harry Pottle, the repair man from hell in Terry Gillam's film Brazil, might knock together in a decidedly odd moment.

But there is much that is witty and stylish: natty handbags made from used teabags and delicately marbled with tea stains (on sale at pounds 60 each), seats made from battered bollards culled from traffic islands, a coffee table made from a massive oil can, garish apple juice cartons turned into a laundry basket and a tiny chest of drawers fashioned from sardine tins (also on sale, at pounds 99).

The sardine chest-of-drawers is the work of Michael Marriott, who says: "As well as providing this beautifully expedient solution to waste, found [recycled] materials can introduce familiarity, warmth, colour and heartiness into everyday lives."

To an extent, people have been experimenting with found materials for centuries; driftwood washed up on Britain's coastline has long been the source of benches and tables, as well as fine art sculpture. Old boats were traditionally made into fishermen's cottages.

What is different now is that designers and makers are taking a fresh and even radical look at recycled materials. They can become what we want them to be, not what they obviously ought to be; and, now, we can transform them into sophisticated forms and sophisticated reworked materials.

In the Eighties, alternative recycled design, or what was known as "skip culture", spelt a plethora of scrap-metal furniture - scrap metal welded into sometimes amusing, but usually uncomfortable, chairs.

Today, transformations of everyday used materials can even be beautiful: Luisa Cevese, for example, bonds scraps of textile waste in plastic to make a transluscent fabric delicately patterned with swirls of thread, while Deborah Thomas turns broken glass into chandeliers that radiate icy luminosity (and sell at pounds 2,250).

In the hands of Nineties designers, recycled materials may have become beautiful, but are they doing the environment any real favours? Making striking, labour-intensive and rather expensive objects out of scavenged second-hand material is, perhaps, a bit like fiddling while the world burns. Clare Goddard, the maker of the teabag bags (no, she is not the design world's Tony Benn; she has a network of tipplers who send her dried teabags, including one lady who insists on ironing them first) argues that she is doing some good.

"It is challenging trying to break through the barriers in the minds of the general public and retail buyers," she says. "It is important that they are made aware of recycled production and start to associate these processes with high-quality products." Although one cannot quite see her tea-bag numbers selling alongside Gucci bags in Harrods.

Jane Atfield uses factory cut-offs and rejects in place of discarded materials to shape her distinctive nougat-like (Jackson Pollock if you want to be smart) furniture. Atfield began to make furniture from high- density recycled plastic board while she was at the Royal Colege of Art. Then it had to be imported from the United States; now she has persuaded a British manufacturer to produce it.

Although recycling plastic - at one time, every ill-informed conservationist's bogey - seems a sound idea, not everyone agrees. Victor Papanek, author of the influential polemic Design for the Real World and, more recently, The Green Imperative, is less sure about its long-term environmental effects. Papanek, who lives in the US where plastic now accounts for a quarter of all trash, argues that the energy used to recycle plastic is wasteful and that it would be better to use far less of the stuff in the first place. Such cautionary tales remind us of how easily the label "recycled" can lull us into a false sense of ecological security.

To be fair, most of the designers and crafts people in the show don't make grand ecological claims. As Tejo Remy, a Dutch designer who exhibits a lamp made from neat rows of suspended milk bottles, points out: "Choosing second-hand materials is not just for environmental, economic or aesthetic reasons. Re-using materials is not always cheaper, does not take less time and is not necessarily cleaner for the environment. For me it is more a mentality of working with things and creating. Everything we need to make new things is already available to us." Sure. Now, which designer is going to be the first to make something interesting, and worth buying, from recycled recycling bins?

`Recycling: Forms for the Next Century' is at the Crafts Council Gallery, 22a Pentonville Road, Islington, N1 9BY until 21 April, when it starts a nationwide tour. Telephone 0171-278 7700 for details.

Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Commercial Property

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: KENT MARKET TOWN - An exciting new role has ar...

    Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

    £180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

    Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

    £200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

    Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

    £18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices