In the past 10 years household recycling in England has more than tripled, with 9.4 million tonnes of waste sent for recycling in 2009-10, according to Defra. That’s a lot of material. And people have realised it’s quite easy to turn unwanted belongings into cash. The world’s largest online marketplace, eBay has 90 million active users globally, with 40 million live listings on the UK site alone. But turning rubbish into a marketable product requires a little more creativity.
Edward Douglas Miller has been eco-innovating for more than 15 years. In 1996, he founded Remarkable Ltd., a company dedicated to turning UK waste into usable products. ‘The idea behind it was you take a waste item from an office and convert it into a product, which you then sell back into the office,’ he says. Remarkable’s first creation was a pencil made from a used plastic cup. When water coolers became a mainstas in offices throughout the country, the use of plastic cups skyrocketed to four billion a year in the UK alone. ‘There was a huge amount of plastic going into landfill – a huge amount of waste,’ he says. His pencils gave the cups new life. ‘The product actually had more life than just a single use. You could learn to write with it; it could carry messages; it was a demonstration of commitment to environmental issues.’
Today, Remarkable has expanded to discarded car tyres, corn on the cob husks and CD cases. ‘I think it’s a responsible and also an essential practice to take our own waste and do whatever we can to turn it back into product we can use,’ adds Miller. Remarkable also helps companies to manage their own waste by streamlining it and turning it into usable products. ‘It makes people realise what they can do and it makes them feel more responsible about dealing with their own waste.’ Though Remarkable is now housed in a 35,000 square foot factory with 70 employees, Miller says he started small and had to work hard to bring the business up to the scale it is today. But with commitment and creativity, anyone can have the same success. ‘Follow your heart and do what you want to do,’ he says. ‘I mean, you only live once.’
Cameron Fry started Liqui Design in a tiny workspace using only a two metre square table. Today, his eco-friendly company does business in Hong Kong, Paris, Austria, Ibiza and at home in the UK. And like Miller, Fry is committed to keeping production local, and sourcing materials from area companies. Liqui is about producing furniture and lighting fixtures that are both ‘green’ and visually appealing. ‘My whole ethos about the company is that someone actually has to buy it at the end,’ he says. A self-described born and bred hippy with a penchant for business, Fry saw a gap in the market for green products with high street appeal. ‘Then people buy it, and you’re educating people who sometimes don’t want to be educated.’
While studying three-dimensional craft at Brighton University, he designed a coffee table made solely from cardboard. Today the same concept is the basis for his Edge Collection. Covered in a gloss laminated veneer for protection from spills, the table’s corrugated edges remain exposed, something that brings honesty back to the product, according to Fry. Liqui’s Bagalight Collection captures the elegant simplicity Fry aims to demonstrate in his designs. A paper shopping bag is turned into a playful, and affordable, lantern or lamp. The inspiration for Bagalights came on an ordinary day, when Fry was sitting outside at a restaurant. ‘A guy went past on a “fixy” with a paper bag hanging off his handle bars with his lunch in it, and I just saw it and it was swinging.’ Fry asked the restaurant for a takeaway bag to examine and was amazed at how something so simple was actually quite intricately produced. ‘You’ve already got this really nicely made product, so it there any way that you can make it into something that someone wants to buy and keep, rather than put in the bin after they’ve eaten their sandwiches?’
Fry says aspiring eco-entrepreneurs should aim to create products that are scalable. ‘If you sell six of them and someone says, “I want one hundred,” and you can’t do it, then there is no business there.’ He adds that persistence pays off, and anyone new to the recycling business needs to be patient. ‘I think that’s what a lot of people don’t understand,’ he says. ‘They start, and six months down the road they haven’t sold anything and they tend to give up. But anything to do with design, and especially eco-design, is tough because it’s such an up and coming thing.’
Lucy Hornberger was strolling down a street in Sweden when she spotted a woman carrying a colourful bag. Intrigued by its unusual design, she asked her where it was from, and learned the bag had come from the Philippines. A few phone calls later, and Hornberger was in touch with a Filipino woman named Editha. ‘She’s got loads of energy and she wanted to direct it somewhere,’ Hornberger says. ‘So she thought she’d start by cleaning up the village.’ Editha, and the women in her village, opened a rubbish sorting area, and came up with the idea of stitching and weaving together juice packs, which are popular in the Philippines. Because they are not biodegradable, the packs litter the streets and rivers. But with a little innovation, and sewing, the women of Editha’s village transformed trash into Doy Bags, now a booming business.
Hornberger’s company now works with the cooperative of women to market their products in Europe and America. ‘They set it up properly with a committee and immediately got lots of women who wanted to come and work for them,’ she says. ‘Everybody knows about it. It’s the major employer, I would say.’ Doy Bags have become such an integral part of the neighbourhood, that residents save used juice packs, and are careful to keep them clean and intact. There is even a waiting list for women hoping to join the company.
Like Fry, Hornberger says recycling alone isn’t enough. You also have to know what your customers want. ‘People like the idea [of recycled products] but when they actually buy, they want the strawberry or the cute cartoon character.’ And this can be a problem if popular juice packs are discontinued. ‘You’ve got to be sure of your supply, because it is all recycled,’ Hornberger says. Quality control is also important. ‘If you sell something to somebody and it breaks, you’ve really burnt your bridges,’ she says. ‘I think it’s an afterthought for a lot of small businesses, but it is really important.’
Where to sell it:
If crafting isn’t your thing, you can still supplement your income just by selling what’s cluttering your closets:
• Books, try www.fatbrain.co.uk
• CDs and DVDs, try www.musicmagpie.co.uk
• Old mobiles, try www.rpcrecycle.com
• Clothes, try www.clothesforcash.com
• Electronics, try www.preloved.co.uk
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