Model No. Turns Food Waste + Reclaimed Wood Into Home Furnishings

The Model No. offers bespoke furniture with short lead times using the latest in 3D printing technology. 3D printed items are traditionally made from petroleum-based plastics. This is great for customization but is polluting. Therefore, Model No. uses biopolymers and plant-based resins instead. These materials are extracted from the remains of food crops, thereby reducing waste and providing a purpose for otherwise unused materials. They complement the 3D printed elements with locally sourced, reclaimed and FSC-certified wood and recyclable materials such as steel and aluminum. And because every item is made to order, there is no storage waste. We spoke to Co-Founder and CTO Jeffrey McGrew to find out more …

Tell me a little about your childhood, education and background, how you first became interested in creativity, design and sustainability.

I’m actually a licensed architect, and before Model No. I ran a very sustainable thinking creative design-build company. Growing up in Wyoming and then moving west, I was always obsessed with using new technology to make things more interesting and sustainable. Fortunately, there has been a lot of effort in the construction industry to become more sustainable, but for this to happen fully we also need better options for what we put into these buildings. And all of these wonderful new manufacturing technologies really open up the possibility of being creative. So it fits together perfectly!

How would you describe this project?

Model No. Revolutionizes the way furniture is designed, manufactured and sold. Our distinctive approach provides bespoke, sustainable products at affordable prices that are created by consumers on demand. All of our furniture is made domestically in highly automated factories and is artfully crafted from sustainable materials such as upcycling food waste and using the latest environmentally friendly technology, including 3D printing. With just a few clicks online, consumers can customize products and they are made to order and delivered in a matter of weeks, avoiding long waiting times and wasted inventory.

What inspired this project?

The current furniture market is obsolete, so companies need to push the industry forward. The industry consists of items that are mass-produced outside the country, have little original design or customization options, are shipped over very long distances, and are made from materials that are usually not very sustainable or environmentally friendly. All of this contributes to high carbon emissions and total waste. With this in mind, I founded Model No. with Jillian Northrop and Vani Khosla to solve these problems and redefine how you can access sustainable, customizable and artistically designed furniture.

What waste (and other) materials do you use, how did you choose those particular materials and how do you source them?

By using agricultural waste from corn husk, sugar cane and sugar beet as material, the Model No. minimizes the carbon emissions and toxic by-products. We also use reclaimed and certified sustainably harvested wood for products such as tabletops, coffee tables and our headphone stands to recycle wood products or use wood scraps. Whether a product is fully 3D printed or just made of wood or a combination of both, it is always as sustainable as we can possibly make it. To reduce our carbon footprint caused by shipping products around the world, we source 95% of our materials from farms in the United States. These include Jamplast (raw PLA), Spectra (dyeing services for the PLA), Techmere (raw PLA), Moore Newton (hardwoods) and Aura hardwoods (hardwoods and plywood).

When did you first become interested in using waste as a raw material and what motivated this decision?

When we investigated the large-scale use of industrial 3D printing to make furniture, it turned out that we could use resins that were made from food waste and were compostable. Since then we have developed the possibility to recycle this resin too, so that we can recycle our own products and make new products from them. We always wanted to make the best possible sustainable furniture that not only looks good and offers high performance, but is also healthy for our customers and our employees. When we saw that it was possible, we really committed ourselves to that direction.

What processes does the material have to go through to become the finished product?

We grind food waste like corn husks, sugar cane, sugar beet and cassava into a PLA – polylactic acid – so it can be 3D printed. For CNC manufacturing, we use waste and by-products such as waste wood and sustainably harvested wood that can be shaved and reused for items such as the table tops of model no.

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they get back into the circular economy?

We are planning to set up recycling facilities in these rooms in order to take back used items. With reference to the company name “Model Number”, each product has its own model number so that the type of material the product was made from and the year it was made can be easily identified so that it can then be broken down into raw materials materials that are to be reused through 3D printing.

How did you feel when you first saw the conversion of waste material to product / prototype?

Ironically, while I was obviously thrilled that we were able to, we also immediately broke the first few points in the rigorous tests we run to ensure our products are of the highest quality! When we figured out how to fully recycle these broken products and reuse the resin, I fell completely in love with the whole process.

How did people react to this project?

People have responded very positively to our commitment to sustainability, design and on-demand customization. We have been recognized as an industry leader in the media and have asked several companies to collaborate. We hope that we can not only inspire consumers to buy sustainably, but also encourage other businesses to follow suit.

How do you think opinions on waste as a raw material are changing?

As natural disasters become more common – an obvious sign of global warming – the conscience grows to do more to protect the environment. I think people and companies are seeing the value of upcycling as the recognition of the need for sustainability becomes more evident.

What does the future hold for you in terms of waste as a raw material?

There is still a lot to be done to develop our ability to use waste as a raw material. We are very proud of the work we have done so far to turn waste into items that consumers can enjoy every day. However, we also recognize that more needs to be done. We hope to continue to find out how different types of waste can be upcycled and hope to inspire other industries to do the same.

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