CCA Students Mine New Value from Discarded Goods

Cradle-To-Cradle thinking, the practice of designing new consumer products so that they can be re-used at the end of their life cycle, is now accepted practice at academic institutions focusing on sustainable design. For most, the emphasis is on down-cycling to prevent landfill waste. Students at Pasadena’s Design Center, for instance, are envisioning automotive seats  that can be easily disassembled into metal, foam, textile, and plastic components that would flow back into the global commodities market for recycled materials. Someday, all consumer products may be designed in this way. But what to do in the meantime?

Students in a recent class at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco are viewing sustainability through a different lens. Led by professors Lynda Grose and Amy Campos, the Rebranding Sustainability design course focused instead on imagining new consumer products using items once destined for the landfill as the raw material. In someone else’s “trash,” these student-entrepreneurs see treasure.
Zero Waste

By partnering with SFGoodwill, the class gained access to a warehouse brimming with salvage goods — items donated to Goodwill but were not high enough quality to be re-sold in our stores. Goodwill ensures these items don’t end up in local landfills by selling them to commodities brokers, with the proceeds going to support local job training and placement mission of the social enterprise. The challenge Grose and Campose posed to the class was to imagine a second life for donated rain boots, fabric scraps, books, VHS tapes, and yoga mats as new consumer products. Could objects of new utility and beauty be made from these discards instead of virgin materials harvested from nature or concocted from chemicals in a laboratory?

rain boots

Sliced rain boots interconnect to create a network of animal habitats.

Plans and diagrams are essential to the design process.

Plans and diagrams are essential to the design process.

A new way to display. Fabric from old shirts dipped in candle wax to form artful jewelry racks.

Fabric from old shirts dipped in candle wax to form artful jewelry racks.


Light fixtures and sconces are formed from plastered sweaters.


books Laser-cut book pages create framed, 3D art.

Upcycled coffee table made from laser-cut books and Plexiglass.

Upcycled coffee table made from laser-cut books and Plexiglass.

Several students zeroed in on textiles, a growing environmental concern. Forming 5.7% of landfill waste in the United States and releasing 7 pounds of CO2 for every pound of waste, textiles are considered the next frontier in recycling. Applying natural glues and other stiffeners, and using handmade molds in vacu-forming machinery, sweaters and jeans were reborn as textured pendant lights, sculptural sconces, and arabesque-patterned wall panels. Others created whimsical shelving from fabric dipped in natural beeswax (melted down from donated candles), while another student turned prosaic yoga mats into a colorful bookshelf.

One student used VHS tape cassettes as her raw material. In landfill, heavy-metal toxins coating the mylar tape can leach into surrounding soils and poison groundwater. She stretched the tape into thin wire and wove it into mesh baskets, which she then placed in planters along with soil. Through a process called photo-remediation, sunflowers and certain other plants can render the heavy metals harmless, leaving the sunflower seeds safe to eat. Re-imagined on an industrial scale — large fields of sunflowers planted atop a blanket woven from mylar tape — this process could help solve the ticking environmental time bomb of VHS tapes.

Through their efforts, the CCA students are proving that zero waste and commerce are not necessarily at odds, and that treasure may be found where we least expect it. Learn more about their work on their class blog  Rebranding Sustainability.

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