Making Products from Rice Hulls, Pineapple Skin, and Bamboo! A Designer Firm that Promotes ‘Zero-Carbon’ Initiative

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Circular economy is a concept generating much traction in recent years. On top of looks and functionality, designers and manufacturers should also emphasize how resources can be continuously used by the industry. However, circular economy is more than simply producing environmentally friendly products; the true implementation of circular design – including a product’s materials, production processes, and recycling/reuse – takes much more effort to practice. Some Taiwanese designers have begun implementing circular design, and Dot Design is one of them.

Searching for safe and pollution-free materials

Circular economy covers many aspects. From design to production, consumption to after-use, relevant practices could be explored in each stage of a product’s life cycle. In terms of product design, the first step in strategic design planning would be material selection. But what counts as a sustainable material?

“Take plastics for example. They are often considered to be unfriendly to the environment. But if we can truly reuse plastics, they could be excellent materials from a point of extending a product’s lifetime. But there are so many reasons that prevent plastics from being recycled,” said Lance Han, Founder and Design Director of Dot Design. There are 7 recycling codes for plastics based on the current legal environment in Taiwan. However, very few of which generate any value from being recycled and there are numerous factors that impact recycling, such as color-printed labels on the plastics’ surface and mislabeled recycling codes etc. Ultimately, these non-recyclable plastics would be transported to either landfill or an incinerator.

Lance Han, Founder and Design Director of Dot Design.

Then again, many products are made from plastic compounds. Lance Han sighed that although the current laws around the world recognize such products as “low-pollution, resource-saving and recyclable” as long as their plastic content is under 25% and could be awarded with an environmental label, but given the existing recycling mechanism, these compound materials cannot be effectively recycled in reality.

“So, is the entire operation actually eco-friendly? Since recycling is not as easy as we imagined, once you begin to question the entire recycling mechanism, as designers, we began to wonder whether we could develop new products that did not contain any plastics but are equally durable.” Consequently, Dot Design began to collect a variety of materials, hoping to find something that would not pollute the Earth and were completely safe. “It is best to localize your circular materials since it reduces carbon footprint.” Thus, Dot Design began by conceptualize based on local materials in Taiwan and created products from diverse zero-carbon materials including rice hulls, pineapple fibers, and bamboo fibers.

Innovative materials led to production challenges.

In 2019, Dot Design’s rice hull beach toys, made from 100% biodegradable materials, and the pineapple fiber plates, made from agricultural waste, were both rewarded with Golden Pin Design Award. Bamboo fiber plates with a beautiful diamond pattern was also launched in 2020.

Bamboo adapts easily to Taiwan’s climate and humidity and requires zero pesticide. It is an ideal localized environmental material, and bamboo fibers, made from scraps, can decompose naturally, thereby returning to the ecosystem. When plastics break down, particles that harm the environment still remain. Moreover, bamboo allows for closed loop recycling, and the recycled material can still be used to make new products.” Lance Han was instrumental in the various merits and potentials of bamboo.

Diamond-pattered plates made from bamboo fibers (image: Dot Design).

However, they did not see the challenges ahead until production process. First, in order to make bamboo fibers, bamboo had to be grinded to a powder and combined with natural compounds to formulate shapes through either mold injection or compression. Though the hot pressing for bamboo fiber products is similar to regular plastic production process, the uniqueness of the material required additional processing tests. A generic hot-pressing process requires a material of equal thickness throughout in a mold which is then heated. The heating will soften the material and make it spread across the mold, which is then stamped by machinery. The material will then solidify upon cooling into a finished product. However, the bamboo fibers allowed for little stretching and was prone to breaking off during the hot press. After numerous tests, the team had finally solved the product formation problem by developing a unique material input and compression process.

Bamboo fibers had to be grinded to a powder before it could be compressed into a product.

However, simply achieving product formation was not enough if the team wanted to make products as durable as plastics without increasing their thickness. The details in the products proved to be even more challenging to the design team and their partner vendors. As a result, Dot Design transformed the product patterns into structural support points to strengthen and stabilize the product’s structure, thereby achieving lightweight products with a diamond pattern, which contrasts against the light and adds more product distinctiveness.

Re-ing plates have rounded shapes with a classic diamond pattern. Though the initial design included both round and square-shaped plates, the team had ultimately gone with round and rectangular plates to make them more user-friendly (image: Dot Design).

Creating an industry-leading brand

Taiwan is incredibly competitive when it comes to treating circular materials, said Lance Han. “If the technical expertise from Taiwanese factory is so advanced that they are receiving orders from foreign firms, as a Taiwanese designer, don’t I owe it to them to try?” Though enthusiastic, Lance Han also admitted that the greatest challenge posed by circular material is none other than cost.

Unlike plastic chemical engineering, there is no established supply chain for natural materials. In the case of pineapple fibers, pineapple peels had to be made into fibers and then mixed with paper fibers. The fiber treatment alone takes much more effort and cost to create than existing production processes. In addition, the plant’s characteristics also come into play. For example, the dehydration process and sugar content, which affect processes and results, may vary from batch to batch and pose strong challenges to the designer and manufacturer’s technical skills. R&D costs aside, compared with existing standardized production processes for bulk plastics, presently it is difficult to increase the production volume of these innovative materials and their material costs would amount to two or three times that of plastic, which also hinders market promotions.

Details and patterns of the pineapple fibers.

Hence, it is Dot Design’s wish to enhance the values of the finished products through design so that more people could understand the feasibility of these materials through various lifestyle applications. In the three years that he has invested in circular design, Lance Han has not only created innovative designs but has also discussed and researched techniques with experts. “Re-ing”, the brainchild of these efforts, is a brand dedicated to circular design. By integrating “recycle” with the present “-ing” tense, Lance Han wishes to demonstrate his commitment to the market. After developing bamboo fiber products and having seen the material’s possibilities, Lance Han has also proposed agency opportunities so that more businesses and designers could begin to adopt materials that are truly friendly to the environment.

Currently, Re-ing has launched multiple products and hopes to encourage participation in circular economy through demonstrating their multiple applications.

“We hope to innovative through a designer mind-set, but we also wish to create products that are affordable and have market values.” Believing that circular design is only a part of the development process, Lance Han emphasized that he did not wish to become a closed-off designer, but rather, a promoter. Though circular design is the current production trend, there is a long way to go before a more comprehensive business model and industry-wide recycling mechanism could be fulfilled in practice.

“Though designers may not be such a noble occupation, we must all bear some responsibility for future creations.”

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Work with designer:Dot Design

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Last modified: May 20, 2021