We have all experienced that frustrating moment when an umbrella is blown inside out, the force of movement breaks the spindles, rendering them useless. The thing is, most umbrellas, with an average lifespan of just six months, just aren’t built to last. To turn that frustration into something positive, Anti takes discarded and broken umbrellas, dismantles them and recycles them into desk and table lamps. We spoke to UK Founder and CEO Mark Howells to find out more.
Tell me a little about your childhood, education and background, how you are interested in creativity, design and sustainability.
I grew up in a working class family in Hertfordshire. My mother can draw and paint and my father is very musical; to this day at the age of 70 to write and perform electric and acoustic guitar music. My first contact with design came in the 1990s through a foundation course in art and design at Watford. I was drawn to the traditional arts as opposed to design until I was asked by a tutor who was running a 3D design course to pick an object from a series of trash items she had recovered from a beach and a new product to manufacture. I chose a section of a washed up bicycle tire and made a watch strap that was buttoned over the tire tread. I loved the process of learning to stop seeing the original use of an object and finding a new purpose that others hadn’t seen before. This led to an explosion of designs with waste. At that time, I had a cleaning job in a very large office in the evening and collected interesting objects – especially computer components – discarded in trash cans and used them again. It was these designs that got me a place in industrial design at Cardiff University. Although I’ve learned a lot, I really had no real interest in becoming an industrial designer – the assembly line approach of the time was a far cry from my job to even secure my place at university. That was the 90s and sustainability wasn’t a cornerstone of the curriculum. I decided to use my acquired drawing skills and move into engineering. I worked for various environmental consultancies, which led me to construction and land surveying, eventually as director of a successful surveying office. In this role, I learned to start new business units and small businesses – which inspired me to fulfill a long-held desire to return to sustainable design.
How would you describe your project / product?
The first collection from Anti are upcycling lamps made from discarded umbrellas that were otherwise intended for landfill. The collected umbrellas are broken down into their individual material groups (e.g. plastics, metals, nylon) and processed into desk and table lamps. Over 1 billion umbrellas are made every year, but they are not designed to last, with an average lifespan of just six months. Anti tackles a waste problem by designing with waste, not creating it – and the new products are easier to dismantle at the end of their life than the original umbrella. This is the first waste stream we will focus on, but there will be others. One of our main focuses is developing repeatable upcycling products that can be manufactured / manufactured on a large scale. The more we sell, the more waste we use and the more we can do good.
What inspired this project / product?
After living in London and Tokyo, I became very conscious of the waste of umbrellas. Umbrellas are everywhere in Tokyo, you can see endless rows of broken umbrellas at train stations and in front of shops. On a typical rainy day in Tokyo, over 3,000 umbrellas are handed in for lost and found items, and the London Underground has a similar problem. Our research shows that up to a billion umbrellas are broken, lost or thrown away worldwide every year. Umbrellas are just one example of an everyday product that has important use and value but is flawed. It solves one problem but causes another. In the case of umbrellas, it keeps us dry, is portable, cheap and available on every street corner, but is made of different types of materials and is therefore difficult to disassemble at the end of its life, making it difficult to recycle on a large scale.
What waste (and other) materials do you use, how did you choose these specific materials and how do you source them?
Both lamps consist of discarded umbrellas. In recent years we have mainly collected these from lost property as well as from city streets, rubbish bins and train stations. We also use a 3D printed recycled plastic filament for two components and multiple metal components made from recycled materials.
When did you first become interested in the use of waste as a raw material and what motivated this decision?
I have been interested in the creative potential of waste use since my studies, but I had the first real deal with the environmental impact of our handling (or non-handling) of waste as a junior technician at an environmental engineering office. I saw firsthand how landfills were designed and even had the opportunity to see how a landfill was built. Landfills were even recognized by landfill planners at the time as a poor solution with many problems, e.g. For example, the plastic membranes often cracked or tore and the toxic water (seepage) that seeped through the waste and into the soil over time was worrying and possibly leaked into the groundwater. Seeing these huge, cave-like sites being built, often in rural areas, just felt wrong and you could really see the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that we associate with trash. The new items we buy are made from exactly the same materials that we threw away; I’ve always believed that our perception of what we see as waste needs to change. If you look at a perceived waste by its material type and shape, as opposed to its original utility and the stigma attached to something old or used, then it is free to take on a new role. It is up to us as designers to unlock this potential.
Which processes do the materials have to go through in order to become the finished product?
The screens have to be dismantled into their individual component types and partially cleaned and repaired. The 3D-printed parts also have to be cleaned and refined. Both lamps are then primarily produced by an assembly process and not by manufacturing. That is also more energy efficient.
What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they get back into the circular economy?
I encourage every customer to return our products at the end of their life through our take-back program. We are happy to take back all products manufactured in our workshop. These are dismantled and reused as the basis for new designs or dismantled as a last resort for recycling. Returning these products is of great value to us. Both lamp designs are easy to dismantle, which allows us to regain their material value very quickly.
How did you first feel when you saw the transformation from waste material to product / prototype?
It really feels like some kind of alchemy when done right. My goal is to create beautiful products from waste streams that at first or second glance have no relation to their original purpose and use. I know my job is done when someone suddenly realizes that what they see is not what they thought and yet it was all along before them. To give this surprise and joy is the best feeling.
How did people react to this project?
So far it has been really positive. I think people are really surprised that something that is not seen as that can be turned into something that looks beautiful. I was particularly pleased about the great reactions from designer colleagues and sustainable designers.
In your opinion, how is the opinion on waste as a raw material changing?
I believe that people are now more accepting of recycling and products made from recycled materials, and in many cases they are now also in demand. However, upcycling products are sometimes devalued in terms of what people could pay for them due to the monetary value associated with their past life. This is interesting because, in my opinion, the creative innovation to successfully develop an upcycling product (especially in terms of volume) is far more demanding and ultimately more impressive, both from the point of view of the creative process and from the point of view of the end product.
In your opinion, what does the future look like for waste as a raw material?
Ultimately, we should be at a point where we don’t consider trash as trash. I believe that the principles of the circular economy will be the panacea to the fear and pain we feel more than ever about the harm to the planet. Politicians, companies, designers and individuals will really want to change the way we live. As you can see, the younger generation is already asking the right questions and is hungry to find the answers. Upcycling, in the sense of transforming a product with a linear lifecycle into a product with a circular lifecycle, can be a bridging step to buy us more time to design with circular principles that feed into everything we make from the start. The development of biomimicry and biological fabrication, where we can grow our products and have them safely return to earth with no return systems, is a really exciting future. While there has been incredible advances in this area, realistically we are many decades away from becoming mainstream, and so the role of upcycling is critical in creating the time for this transition.