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.

fruit-leather bag made from recycled materials
This fruit-leather bag can be dissolved in water to fertilize plants via Dezeen

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.

Sustainable project design
The desire to preserve our world is a big part of the rise in recycled materials by Dusan Klepic

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.

web design for brand using recycled materials
Web design for eco-friendly brand, by Adam Muflihun.Is it any wonder people are keener on recycled materials than ever? One global survey found that around half of consumers paid a premium (59% more on average) for products branded as sustainable or socially responsible in the last 12 months, with over half saying sustainability was more important to them now than last year.

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.

IPA beer can
Despite a natural feel (and a recyclable sign) this can doesn’t shout about its recycled content—and there’s a reason for that by Wintrygrey

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.

soy sauce lamp from Heliograf
Heliograf’s inventive lamp looks like a very large soy sauce squeezer, and helps save fish via Design Boom
Schwalbe bike tire bag using recycled materials
A mountain bike tire forms the body of this cycle courier bag via Bike Radar

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.

Kaffeeform coffee cups
Brown and orange hues and a faux-disposable look via Kaffeeform

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.

Watson & Co book composed of recycled materials
Striking simplicity and a lot of recycled coffee cups distinguish this Watson & Co book via Watson & Co

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:

detail from a stool
Bright, collage-like detail from Haneul Kim’s surgical-mask plastic stool Via dezeen.com
smog particles and a ring made from them
Smog particles are made into limited-edition rings via Studio Roosegaarde
smog particles and a ring made from them
Smog particles are made into limited-edition rings via Studio Roosegaarde
tps://www.dezeen.com/2019/12/03/harry-nuriev-balenciaga-clothing-sofa/ Alt text: Harry Nuriev’s vinyl couch
Harry Nuriev’s vinyl couch is made from old Balenciaga clothing via Dezeen
Tiles made from knotweed and crayfish
Brigitte Kock and Irene Roca Moracia created these tiles from knotweed and crayfish via Dezeen
Elephant-dung bricks
Boonserm Premthada’s Elephant Theater is built from elephant dung via DesignBoom

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.

 hat made from modus intarsia yarn
Neutral tones and a close-up of the wispy yarn underline modus intarsia’s values via modus intarsia

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 Petrel sunglasses
Leaf patterns and natural materials hint at sustainability via Bird

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.

Tiles made from knotweed and crayfish
Invasive species (Japanese knotweed and signal crayfish) form the bio-concrete for these tiles via Dezeen

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.

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