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Mexican designer Fernando Laposse turns the waste from corn preparation into veneer.

Turning waste into a valuable product isn’t new. In the 19th century, for example, clever marketing turned used brewer’s yeast into the bestselling savoury spread Marmite. But with the end of the 20th century came the rush for shiny, new and disposable consumer items, and some of that ingenuity was forgotten.

Now, returning to these sustainable values has become especially important. Creative uses for what has traditionally been considered waste at home and in industrial settings are crucial at a time when China has imposed new standards on the recycled materials it takes in from other countries – leaving Canadians facing piles of garbage. More daunting still, our waste was multiplying even before the ban: Canada has more than 10,000 landfill sites, and between 2002 to 2016, the total amount of solid waste (recyclables, organic materials and garbage) collected increased by 3.5 million tonnes or 11 per cent. According to the same reporting, the non-residential sector was responsible for 59 per cent of that.

In the current environment, glimmers of that innovation have started to reappear. The zero-waste mentality has begun to reshape both the products on the shelf and the shelf itself. With environmental concerns becoming an impetus for moving from the current linear production system back to circularity, solutions for dealing with trash – how to minimize it and how to use it – are driving innovation and the development of new products and materials.

Gianantonio Locatelli created Merdacotta, a mix of cow dung and claw that can be used as tableware and bricks.Peter Kelleher/Handout

There are a few ways these businesses are making a difference with the adage that one company’s trash can be another’s treasure. Winemaking waste known as pomance (grape stems, seeds and skins) is what gave us the hooch known as grappa, but it’s also the hero ingredient that built Caudalie, the French skin-care line founded near Bordeaux. Co-founder Mathilde Laurent was ahead of the trend when she recognized the cosmetic potential in grapes and repurposed the waste from her family’s acclaimed vineyard (Château Smith Haut Lafitte) to create a sustainable cosmetics brand in the late nineties.

Another kind of memorable bottled elixir comes from Etat Libre d’Orange. The niche brand launched its I Am Trash perfume last year with the tagline, “The most wanted scent made from the unwanted.” It makes use of organic waste materials such as apple oil, upcycled waste from the fruit-juice industry combined with rotting fruit they composted with worms, and perfume-industry waste. Not only does its concept make a general statement about reuse and recycling, it challenges the wasteful practices and status quo of its own industry. And because of its unusual composition, it’s a counterintuitive, fresh and more interesting smell than many of its competitors.

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Locatelli's Merdacotta toilet, a tongue-in-cheek installation.Henrik Blomqvist

Similarly, H&M’s recent Conscious Exclusive sustainable fashion line made use of new eco textiles made from fruit waste (orange peel, pineapple leaves, algae). But, that seems a half-hearted solution coming from the Swedish apparel giant, which pushes out gluts of inexpensive clothing and accessories every week, and is big part of the underlying reason for our accelerated consumption appetite.

But we don’t need more clothing, no matter the textile source. What we really need is better packaging on commodity goods, especially with the increasing bans on single-use plastic products proposed by regions around the world. In its spring report, food and beverage-industry research firm Innova Market Insights cited a 40-per-cent global rise in new product launches with paper-based packaging in 2018 (up from 2014). A start. It also called being “recyclable by design” the top packaging trend for this year.

Accordingly, in Sweden, researchers are working on the creation of viable, edible bioplastic films for food packaging from the same sort of fruit waste (specifically apples and oranges) that makes that French perfume so memorable. Other labs are testing the applications of 3-D printing on kitchen appliances, as way to reduce food waste. The idea is to reduce food waste by reprocessing, for example “ugly” but still nutritious cuts of fish usually thrown out during mass production into purée or reconstituted shapes that are more appealing.

Our squeamishness when it comes to how food looks has been a part of the problem with waste, but thanks to supermarket awareness campaigns and farmers’ markets, the tyranny of improbably perfect produce is on the wane in the produce aisle.

GroCycle took a vacant office building in Exeter, England and turned it into an a mushroom farm.MATT AUSTIN

And consider what can be done with cow dung. Really.

Merdacotta, a hybrid name that combines the Italian colloquial terms for baked poop, is made from mixing cow dung with clay and was invented and patented in 2015 by Italian farmer Gianantonio Locatelli, who was determined to do something useful with the waste that his dairy herd produced. He turned the raw material into tableware, building bricks and, to make a point, tongue-in-cheek toilets as installations. They now sit, throne-like, on display in the Food: Bigger Than the Plate summer exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Waste turned functional art. It’s what sustainability is all about.

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