Have you heard about recent zero-waste trend? It is being introduced more and more into contemporary design practice as a fresh movement in strive towards sustainable living. Recycling of materials that otherwise would become industrial trash is becoming a serious issue in today’s world, where most of created energy and work is being constantly wasted. With Beach Bar Lounge, I faced myself with one of the most popular zero-waste creations — furniture made of recycled EUR shipping pallets.
Step One: Review your recycling.
First rule of my zero-waste method of design:
Review what you already have and try to use as much as possible solely of it — before you even start thinking of any additional materials and innovations.
I started my work with lounge furniture with very simple means: Specific quantity of more or less decent material, and clear goal in mind.
Material consisted of about fifteen pieces of standard shipping pallets, in various states of their “shelf life”. I found out one important thing about designer’s approach towards the materials. Now, after the project is finished, I know that some of the elements I used in accordance to the nothing-gets-wasted rule were… actual trash. Sad but true.
For example — no matter how much I tried to refresh and reinforce pallets’ joining blocks made of chipboard instead of wood, I had to fail. I couldn’t neither correctly clean them, reinforce them, nor paint them — and due to that, some parts of the furniture can become used up quickly. Chipboard blocks used as joints in pallets to save money while mass producing them — later become a problem when recycling takes place. Always take the pallets with wooden blocks for your work — avoid chipboard at all costs.
This is general unfortunate move from the pallets’ producers. I understand that they want to perform economically here, and production costs are their main area of interest. Then, true economical approach requires that you always should take broader picture into consideration. So, producer’s thinking should not only be about: how much can I reduce the cost, and how to meet just the minimum requirements of a first-hand product’s client.
While making something commited to being re-used in the future, you shouldn’t cut the costs and quality down to absolute minimum — because this is what actually brings more trash. Modest quality materials encourage recycling — not the other way around.
With that being said, what can designer do to improve this situation? As for me, the answer is simple: pay for and use only good quality materials. Don’t try to save money and re-use every heavily worn up part — it’s just unsustainable, and won’t improve anything. The only thing you can get later thanks to this extreme approach is a waste of time and energy.
And so, while working with pallets, another important design issue became clear to me:
You have to learn to identify which parts of your material are nothing more but trash — and consciously get rid of them.
The most economic — thus truly no-waste — method is simply to get rid of trash at the beginning, of course making sure it’ll be processed in some eco-friedly manner. When something is clearly too damaged to effectively use it in a workshop — just don’t use it.
Of course, I broke this simple rule while creating the described furniture, and that’s how I learned the lesson I’m sharing — well, now you don’t have to repeat my mistakes.
Step Two: Concept meaning clever re-use.
So, after initial clean-up we are left only with proper material to use. And here’s the trick for making your design as sustainable as possible:
Even if it’s not instantly obvious, most probably you can use each available part of material in your project, without generating additional trash.
Sometimes it’s not so clear at the beginning of the process, but with enough time spent on trying different options — most oftenly you’ll end up with maximally tenable concept.
I myself was able to quickly invent two types of seat, each made entirely of parts coming from 3 shipping pallets, as well as table made solely of 2 shipping pallets. Each part taken away from original pallets found its purpose as some important element of the created fitting. I guess after my work was done, I was left with just few spare wooden planks.
The rest of the process was simply prototyping with first five pallets, allowing me to invent some most promising methods of work. I thought that at this moment I’ve done the most difficult part of my work. As it later appeared, that was only the beginning…
Step Three: Time for actual work.
After you have you material properly sorted and processed in a workshop — the show begins. Here the procedure is basically the same for every similar project made of pallets:
- You should remove old nails / screws / broken planks and blocks, and replace them with better quality elements, putting you prototype parts together.
- Each single pallet weights about 25 kg, and takes around 1,5 m x 2 m of space when you work around it. So, take good care about having some extra space, handy tools and prepare yourself for some serious physical work.
- The wood must be thoroughly cleaned up of old paint, dirt and organic matter. That means sanding and polishing of practically whole uncovered wood’s surface — takes a lot of time.
- Then you have to precisely impregnate your freshly uncovered wood, to prevent future intrusion of bugs and fungus. You can do it with varnish / natural oil / further very careful sanding — no matter the choice, this is another big investment in time.
- If you want to use paint / varnish for finish, that gives you another fair amount of work to make things look and perform well.
To sum the whole process up shortly: It’s just a lot of work. It requires good plan, skills, tools and patience at every moment of production. Parts of the process that you may have imagined as easy and satysfying suddenly become repetitive and requiring. Each point from the above list is time- and energy-consuming, yet being indispensable part of the whole endeavor.
After some time spent, you have your well done parts, ready to assemble. Now it’s time for the last big ammount of mostly satysfying work: putting your furniture together.
Step Four: Polishing and extra features.
At the end of your work, you’ll probably still discover few things about your creation that you couldn’t have predicted before. I treat those as nice surprises, crowning the creative process if you know how to improvise around them.
For example, after final assembly it appeared that pallets I used to make two tabletops weren’t perfectly fitting to their bases. In both cases joining at one corner of the table gave me about 1 inch depth of totally unplanned additional space. Something to worry about? No, at all. Instantly I figured out that it could be used… as stash for bussiness cards or leaflets. Improvising — almost always simple, clever and effective.
Step Five: It’s alive!
Of course, the most satysfying part of all this is the view of your fittings serving its purpose. Conscious design in a flesh — this is what you’ve been waiting for so long.
When performed well, zero-waste furniture leaves you with especially great feeling of creating something a bit more meaningful than average. Furniture that is economical and ecological, and may also end up beautiful and inspiring. And you did it yourself.
Soon — more about zero-waste technology and design methodology. This next time will be about even cheaper, more creative and more shocking way of recycling ‘trash‘ into ‘esthetic and functional‘. I wonder if you can guess the material… For now I’d only say that its flexibility and durability positively surprised even me. Stay tuned.