by Almas SadiqueJan 20, 2023
We are still unable (or scared) to fully grasp the real, abysmal impact of waste – no other species that inhabit this planet generates as much by-waste as humans do – be it from the medical industry, food production and packaging, or the most notorious of all, the fabric and fashion business. Similarly, the bedrock of modern society, the technological and electronics sector, spews an obscene amount of non-recyclable/ up-cyclable elements, of which sand is a resource that is essential for its continued functioning. It ensures the working of our electronic devices, keeps homes warm and illuminated, enables faster communication, warrants a more sustainable consumption of energy, and is primal to the production of silicon microchips, fibre-optic cables, insulation and solar cells. It is also the principal ingredient in glass, which is commonly used across consumer electronic products such as fridges, microwaves, and computers.
Great efforts are made to extract, transport, refine and process sand into complex electronic components, yet, little is done to recycle the said components when these electronic devices reach the end of their lives. Not many know that glass features material properties excellent for recycling, but EU directives on effectively processing it from electronic waste (e-waste) do not currently exist. At least, not successful, effectively sustainable routes. Sand remains a finite resource, and as the volume of e-waste rapidly increases manifold on a global level, there is a stringent need to put in place strategies and design solutions.
With an aim to explore and derive potential applications from recycling e-waste glass, Common Sands – Forite tiles emerged as a collaborative project between Norwegian design and architectural studio Snøhetta and Belgian designer duo, Studio Plastique, built on a powerful, existing material research by the latter. The resulting product design are translucent architectural tiles displaying terrazzo-like motley of recycled glass pieces, featuring specks of green, black and gold, each unique and depending on the base material’s complexity. The practices also share that e-waste glass is an untapped resource that can and should be recycled, as it employs less energy than producing new glass and because silicate scarcity is an emerging global issue.
“Through several prototypes and variations, a process for recycling e-waste glass components was developed, leading to the development of an application integrating and celebrating its variable material quality: glass tiles,” the team behind Common Sands: Forite reveal. Italian manufacturer Fornace Brioni joined the initiative later on, adding on with their experience, industrial know-how, production facilities and potential for scalability to the project that is at a prototype stage at present.
Henry Stephens, an architect at Snøhetta, and Archibald Godts and Theresa Bastek, founders of Studio Plastique, speak to STIR about Common Sands: Forite tiles, and its potential to close cycles, as environmentally-conscious creatives focused on changing the game.
Jincy Iype (JI): What can you tell us about this series of architectural glass tiles, and the importance of such collaborations, to ensure a genuine step forward in the field of circular product design?
Henry Stephens (HS): Made from recycled glass from microwave ovens, the tiles have been developed in two different sizes. The tiles are both opaque and transparent, each with a unique pattern and expression. With a deeply complex, terrazzo-like material quality, they are suitable for a wide range of architectural applications, including both surface coverage and as semi-transparent partition elements.
Common Sands – Forite positively leverages the unique properties of composition, colour and structure inherent in the waste material into a series of architectural glass tiles. In an industry which demands transparency and consistency as a standard, the tiles embrace the variance and complexity already embedded in the recycled material. Focus has been put on waste glass from ovens and microwaves as a starting point to demonstrate the aesthetic depth, function and potential of the recycled material, but the project is not limited to this material stream alone.
This collaboration between us, Studio Plastique and Fornace Brioni meets contemporary challenges with ambitious, pragmatic and scalable solutions. Working across disciplines, organisations and specialisations, the project is an example of how collaboration and curiosity can contribute to creating significant changes within circular and sustainable design.
Archibald Godts and Theresa Bastek (AG and TB): The Forite tiles are based on our previous research for Common Sands in 2017 into sand-based materials found in our worldwide growing amounts of e-waste. It is during this initial research that we were struck by the observation that after all the efforts made to extract, transport, refine and process sand into the most complex electronic components, almost nothing is done to recycle glass, silicon, silicones, microchips or glass-ceramics when they reach the end of their lives. They simply land in the dump. This seems to happen because sand is too cheap, too abundant, and often difficult to recycle in standard materials such as clear glass. However, this understanding stands in stark contrast to the geopolitical context of carbon-heavy sand mining, which is marked by both material scarcity and ecological disaster.
The Forite tile design is a logic evolution of the project in which we have worked collaboratively with Snøhetta and Fornace Brioni to embrace the unique and beautiful properties of those locally available materials of global heritage.
JI: What is the reasoning behind the initiative’s moniker and how long have you been working on the project?
HS: Common Sands is name of the original research project initiated by Studio Plastique in 2017, aimed at understanding possible uses for glass from electronic waste. Glass is sand that has been melted and chemically transformed. Forite is the next step in this effort, to develop this material research into a working prototype for architectural application. We have been working on this together since around Easter 2020.
(AG and TB): Over the centuries, especially in the post-war period, we have accumulated an enormous but hidden wealth. We are surrounded by a man-made anthropogenic warehouse amounting to more than 50 billion tons of materials providing substantial resources for future generations. Common Sands is a quantification of sand as a fundamental resource for our civilisation. Pointing out how much we are surrounded by sand without even noticing.
It is an attempt to close cycles, to bring back a human scale to the alienation of our resources. It shows possibilities for design to be of meaning in the way we handle the materials created from natural resources and explores ways to conceive a new economic cycle for the resource, sand.
JI: What is the underlying message of the initiative?
HS: We need to find novel ways to utilise the vast repositories of waste material surrounding us - glass from electronic waste, in this case. Glass of any kind is hygienic, inert, and totally recyclable. Moreover, glass is widely used in many electronic goods. The total volume of e-waste is increasing markedly every year, and yet there are still few or no structures in place to organise and enable the recycling of any part of this waste stream effectively. Common Sands - Forite is an attempt to take action within this context.
JI: Please give us some details of the prototype – what can these tiles be used for, what is their amounted strength, and what can this material’s usage be elevated to in the future besides creating Forite tiles?
HS: Currently these tiles are in the process of being certified in Italy as per EU standards. When we do achieve this certification, we can launch the tiles as a proper, usable product. The initial plan is to develop a collection of decorative tiles for interior spaces, first for vertical surfaces. From there we can gradually and organically extend the range of possible applications, of which there could well be many - semi-transparent interior partitions, kitchen surfaces, outdoor furniture, integration with other products, and much more. Maybe one day we will even get to facade and roof elements! Each new application will require additional testing, prototyping, and certification - so we plan to take it surely and steadily, bit by bit.
JI: What are some defects of the base material that deem it unrecyclable by the industry at large? What is the manufacturing process followed to recycle and upcycle them into a usable resource?
HS: In contrast to packaging glass, most of which is recycled, glass recovered from e-waste is very non-standard. Various treatments, oxides, and laminates give the glass different properties for its use in ovens, microwaves, fridges, and other electronic goods. These treatments also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so the end result is an extremely variable, sometimes volatile material stream. This means it is difficult to recycle because the market demands on glass as a material tend toward transparency and homogeneity - irrespective of glass' long history as an opaque, coloured, or heavily textured material.
Unfortunately, we will not be able to reveal our manufacturing or recycling process yet, but what I can tell you is that all the aforementioned treatments, oxides and laminates which make glass from e-waste difficult to recycle are also the elements that give the Forite tiles their unique, complex, marbled appearance. It is interesting that the manufacturing process we have developed has resulted in an appearance synonymous with luxury, using a source material which is definitely not.
JI: What are some parameters that need to be considered for the tiles and material to be standardised, in terms of aesthetic and function?
HS: We actually do not really consider these tiles objects which can ever completely be standardised, at least not in terms of their appearance. Very early on we recognised that any use of glass from e-waste would have to lean into the variability of the source material rather than attempting to standardise it. We feel that tiles are the perfect application to absorb the variability of e-waste glass, but moreover, that the non-standard output is a positive quality. Not only will the tiles vary from batch to batch, but they will also vary from tile to tile.
Right now we are using glass from ovens and microwave ovens, but using different streams of waste glass also results in a different output, so there is also the possibility to pivot to different waste material streams in the future.