Recycling e-waste continues to be a growing challenge due to the complex and even hazardous substances found in the products. One material, some say, is almost never recycled due to nonexistent regulations for effective processing, especially in the EU, is glass from electronic goods. There is great effort to process sand as a raw material into glass, but the same energy isn’t put into recycling these components when items like microwaves and ovens are ready to be discarded.
However, a research project-turned-prototype called Common Sands – Forite, done in collaboration with Norwegian studio Snøhetta, Brussels-based design duo Studio Plastique, and Italian ceramic tile manufacturer Fornace Brioni, may be a scalable solution. Common Sands has developed a process for recycling e-waste glass and explores the potential ways these components can be applied. The result are terrazzo-esque glass tiles that feature unique variances in opaqueness and transparency.
“In order for sand to become glass, microchips, solar cells, aerogel, insulation, or any number of other products, we enter a world of sophisticated technological production that simply defies belief,” Snøhetta told Dezeen in an exclusive interview. “However, after all the effort 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.”
Research began with Studio Plastique designers Archibald Godts and Theresa Bastek spending three years exploring the use of sand including different silicate materials, i.e. rock-forming minerals, and the infrastructure surrounding it. The studio’s project resulted in transforming repurposed silica into collections of glassware including glass carafes and trays. The studio then approached Snøhetta to help further develop the project into an application that “integrates and celebrates its variable material quality.” Fornace Brioni was finally brought in to contribute the industry experience and production facilities needed to truly scale the project. The use of Common Sands tiles can range from surface coverage and semi-transparent partition elements.
Currently, the focus material to produce the tiles has been sourced from microwaves and ovens, but Snøhetta aims to expand the material stream in the near future. Plans to create other products like furniture elements as an experiment are also in the works. In the meantime, the project is seeking certification in Italy with hopes of going to market soon. However, Snøhetta architect Henry Stephens would also like to rethink the standardized process all together.
“To be honest, in the face of climate change and silicate scarcity we probably need to re-evaluate our aesthetic perceptions so they can operate outside the business model of a typical commercial product,” Stephens told Dezeen. “Standardization and perfect, factory-made material finishes might be something which has to go – much like our diets, our material practice will have to become more reliant on what is locally available. We would hope our Forite tiles do just this – offering both a novel aesthetic and a tiny window into a more sustainable future.”
The experimentation and exploration of silicate scarcity done to create Common Sands tiles has been recognized by the design community as an innovative, sustainable approach to finding value in the discarded. The project was awarded Dezeen’s sustainable design of the year 2021.
“Studio Plastique has taken an underexplored waste stream and found a clever solution with wide-ranging applications in these glass tiles,” said judges. “The product takes a ubiquitous source of waste to which we can all relate. We pay for end of life disposal but these tiles fulfil a design-to-design loop that is rarely found in repurposed materials. The designers have upcycled unwanted glass into one of the kind palettes for a new generation of lifecycle to come.”
In other material news, Pangaia and Colorifix bring a bio-fabricated dyeing technology to apparel for the first time.