Design: Bathtub sofas - why not?

By Terry Lobb

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Recycling. Done that. Upcycling is hot now, and it's packed with home decor potential.

An old bathtub has been given a new role - as a couch.
An old bathtub has been given a new role - as a couch.

We have come through generations in which clothes, furniture and accessories were deemed "pre-loved" and repaired or handed down to others who put them to good use. Some of those items were even remade into other useful things. Somewhere along the line, this act of generosity has slowed, or simply stopped, as our lives became busier - or it became just too hard.

I'm of an era when we exchanged our empty glass milk bottles for full ones, definitely recycling there. Cloth nappies were washed and reused. Disposable nappies were just coming on to the market and the thought of wrapping up human waste in plastic and putting it out with the rubbish rather revolted me, so I think I only ever bought one bag and that was enough. We could raise funds by collecting bottles and aluminium cans that served two purposes: kids were keen to collect them for money and we didn't have unsightly bottles and cans dumped everywhere. It was just something that was done.

But then that all stopped and it became easier to send it all to the landfill without even sorting out what could be reused.

We have two sides to our dumping situation - unwanted items just end up in a huge pit and get smashed and crushed then sent to the landfill. Some of these items will take years to break down completely.

The other side to our dumps are recycling depots and green waste, encouraging people to sort their rubbish.

Technology has changed over the years, allowing unwanted plastic and paper to be made into other useful items. But at what cost are we recycling these old items and saving our planet? Is the recycling of items into new items even more toxic for our environment and once the "new" item has passed its use-by date where does it then go?

In 1996, German evironmentalist Gunter Pauli came up with the "upcycling" concept. He is an entrepreneur and lecturer in culture, science, politics, sustainability innovation and the environment. Pauli is also an accomplished author having written Upcycling in 1997, among his many other books on sustainable living.

Upcycling is the re-use of old or discarded materials to make new useable products. It doesn't involve breaking down existing products but reusing and putting them to new uses.

We all know the saying "one man's trash is another man's treasure". In developing countries, this concept is often necessary to survive.

However, in Western countries, it has become fashionable to buy often overpriced second-hand materials and transform them into luxury items with huge price tags.

I recently saw a design story from America in which "scouts" looked for old car chassis to make furniture from. Every item was taken from scrapyards back to a workshop where someone put the pieces together in a one-off sofa for an exclusive apartment.

Upcyclers are using their environmental credentials to resell their wares. But bear in mind the true term "upcycling" does not tie in with breaking down the products, but rather reusing them. There is a difference. We have all seen such items on the internet: vintage suitcases made into pet beds, bathtubs made into indoor and outdoor sofas and so on.

Upcycling has induced an urge in people to be more creative via embellishment or paint finish on furniture. This is something we have all seen in the past, with the likes of folk art, but now often new techniques are introduced, in laser cutting overlays to give furniture a new lease on life. Products for the open market tend to be innovative and styles use good second-hand furniture. Upcycling is drawing out people's creativity and creating job opportunities.

Is it here to stay? In some respects it has always been done but now we are looking at why we should upcycle instead of just discarding.

As technology changes and products are manufactured with the environment in mind then maybe there will no longer be a need to upcycle. But we have a long way to go before all raw materials and products that we manufacture can be reused in their complete form or remanufactured into something completely new and useable without a huge impact on the environment.

If you have any questions about issues discussed here or product supply call me on 027 602 3298 or drop me a line at terry@terrylobb.com; www.terrylobb.com

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