Recycling is nothing new. But with sustainability increasingly valued, designers and producers are using recycled materials in increasingly new and inventive ways. Below, we explore rings built from smog particles, stools constructed from surgical masks and books made of algae.
But your products don’t have to be outlandish to use recycled materials effectively. If you get it right, these designs can build stories, engage customers and help save the planet. Here are some of the best uses of recycled materials.
Why recycled materials are more popular than ever
It’s easy to think of recycling as a modern trend. Yet the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, is said to have been recycled for scrap, and there’s evidence of paper being recycled in Japan as early as the 9th century. By WW2, tin, rubber and paper were being recycled on a huge scale to help the war effort in nations including the US, the UK and Australia.
But today there’s a growing impetus around recycling. Mass consumption and soaring populations have depleted natural resources, contributing to climate change and produced growing mountains of landfill. We produce over 2 billion tonnes of solid waste every year, a figure that’s projected to almost double by 2050—unless we do something about it.
Recycled materials: getting the basics right
So if you use recycled materials, should you always shout about them? Well, yes and no. In some industries, using largely recycled materials is a baseline rather than something to boast about. Recycled aluminum and paper make up most of drinks cans (68% in the US) and newspapers (63% in the UK) in many markets.
And using recycled materials isn’t always the whole sustainability story—aluminum cans may use more recycled material than plastic bottles, but they produce more carbon in their construction. If you’re going to build your marketing around your products’ or packaging’s eco-friendliness, make sure you’ve done your research—or accusations of greenwashing may follow.
If in doubt, keep it simple. The toy manufacturer, Greeny Toys, uses a straightforward pledge—that its products will be from 100% recycled materials—and carries that message through bright and fun branding (complete with looping green arrows) that promises “100% recycled goodness” and “100% play”.
Green Toys uses 100% recycled plastic—with no screws, glue or batteries via Green Toys
Don’t have the expertise to undertake sourcing recycling materials yourself? Work with partners who do—numerous sustainable suppliers can fill you in on their credentials, offering inspiration and an eco-friendly plug-in for your brand.
Make recycling part of your story
Recycled materials work best if they feel like a part of your brand rather than a last-minute garnish: either a natural extension of something you already do, or something that’s been there from the get-go. Successful examples don’t have to be flashy, just fitting.
Take Heliograf’s playful lamps. The Australian design duo take a fish-themed object that many of us throw away straight after eating—a sushi-pack soy sauce squeezer—as the inspiration for a chic and quirky table light that uses recycled plastic collected from waterways and shorelines.
Another fitting marriage of material and message comes in this rugged cycle courier bag, which uses a recycled mountain bike tire as its base. The shape is instantly recognizable, practical (I used to cycle through rush-hour London with it) and fits the brand—bike tires are Schwalbe’s main product.
Recycled materials can be your core business—if you can show they work
If recycled products are a side-hustle for brands like Schwalbe, they can also be at the heart of a company. Japan’s Tread&Groove bills itself as an “upcycling shoe brand”, and builds its brand identity around its recycled material. Here, the brand gets its name from the used car tires that form its soles, while its copy hones in on the carbon this saves and the grip it offers: 2.9 times the grip and 1.5 times the wear resistance of normal shoes, apparently.
Tread&Groove’s positioning is an effective reminder that customers want to be convinced of recycled products’ quality as well as their eco-credentials. Kaffeeform’s classy reusable cups mix leftover coffee grounds with beechwood scraps and plant-based materials. The result? A series of cups that combine rich brown and orange hues with an ethical narrative and guarantees of functionality (the cups are dishwasher-proof and drop-resistant).
From headline-hogging one-offs to avant-garde art
Recycled materials can also be introduced for a single product. When ad agency Watson & Co wanted to look back on the last decade, it produced a celebratory book, each one produced from 196 recycled coffee cups. It’s a neat way to make the book into an attention-grabbing artifact that suggests creativity and sustainability—plus the wake-up jolt of coffee.
An arguably even more inventive use of materials comes from publishers Triest Verlag, a book about the possibilities of renewable materials that’s ended up—after experiments with kiwi peel and other materials—printed on green paper made from algae and olive oil.
If some of these projects are starting to sound less like viable business ideas and more like avant-garde art projects, you won’t be surprised to hear that there are far more outlandish uses of recycled materials out there:
- A plastic stool made from 1,500 surgical masks
- A series of rings made from the compacted smog particles collected by air-cleaning towers
- An L-shaped vinyl sofa constructed from old Balenciaga clothing
- Tiles of bio-concrete made from invasive species such as Japanese knotweed and American signal crayfish
- An art pavilion made from elephant-dung bricks
It’s easy to dismiss some of these ideas as gimmicks, but that’s not the whole story. Think of a fashion catwalk: plenty of what’s on show is too extravagant, flamboyant or costly for the high street. But some of the inspiration on display here will spin out into functional ideas than can inspire quirky campaigns or mass-market products.
Recycled materials may end up being the fabrics of the future
The clothes industry offers plenty of ideas for how recycled materials can feed into practical products. It also shows how a single sector can support plenty of different approaches and designs, from the user-generated photo grid of resale site Vinted to the creamy naturalism of modus intarsia, which makes fine, soft yarn from the brush-out undercoats of dogs.
RE/DONE, meanwhile, takes old denim and reshapes it into new clothes with an aesthetic inspired by the alternative culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The sturdy but playful garments that result have patches, rips and a surfer vibe. Founders Sean Barron and Jamie Mazur have repurposed some 230,000 pieces of old clothing in all: proof that a consistent, sustainable and appealing brand can make a serious impact.
As we can see, while recycled materials are central to RE/DONE’s mission, they’re not the only plank in the brand’s identity. Similarly, boutique glasses brand Bird and outdoor giant Patagonia use recycled materials, but also make products that will appeal to people who’ve never thought about sustainability in their lives.
Bird is named after an animal, and uses designs inspired by leaves, forest hues and animals—but you can buy its products because of their B Corp certification and stylish recycled beechwood or just because you like the breezy look of the frames. Patagonia, meanwhile, associates itself with nature through charity initiatives, blogs and waterproofs and leisurewear that are made for the great outdoors—but you have to dig a little to find out that it already uses 69% recycled material and is aiming to hit 100%. Ingenious recycled materials can be the bedrock of your product without being your main marketing hook.
How recycled materials can transform brands
As we’ve seen, there’s no one way to use recycled materials—or market them. And while simple reuse, like the repurposing of scrap metal or paper, has been going on for centuries, we’re in a new era now. Climate change and population growth mean we have to reimagine our relationship with materials that were once flung away and forgotten.
Some brands are wildly inventive with the substances they use—from reclaimed plastic to Japanese knotweed—while others take smaller steps. But whatever your approach, your material should align with your message, so that it becomes part of a compelling story. Use them to create something the public wants to buy into, and you might just sell a few more products—and become part of humanity’s bid to build a brighter future.