Be Good is a series that looks behind the buzzwords of conservation and social responsibility, uncovering stories from travel projects that are not simply paying lip service to the growing importance of doing the right thing.
“This young century has brought about a moment of reflection and radical change, making up for a century of ecological abuse, consumption, greed and violence. At this point, we feel the urge to explore alternatives and use natural ingredients, which gives us hope for the future.”
Lidewij Edelkoort is a noted trend forecaster and co-curator of Earth Matters, a current exhibition at the TextielMuseum in Dutch city Tilburg that serves as an expansive survey of innovative design, which has deep respect for earth’s resources at its heart. Visitors are given a greater understanding of a sustainable cycle and the importance of material studies in our throw-away age.
Alongside designers like Sanne Visser, who harnesses the potential of human hair, and Design Academy Eindhoven graduate, Tamara Orjola, whose Forest Wool stools and carpets have been made using pine needle waste from the timber industry, is the fascinating work of young Dutch designer, Nienke Hoogvliet, whose contributions to a more sustainable world know no bounds… She even goes as far as getting her hands dirty (hopefully not literally) with used toilet paper.
Accolades for Hoogvliet’s work first came rolling in when the prodigious designer presented a rug made of sea algae yarn knotted by hand into an old fishing net at the 2014 edition of Dutch Design Week; growing up near a beach, Nienke’s connection to the briny deep was the foundation of a long-lasting research into sea-based materials. With funding from the Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie, that research extended, and Nienke discovered uses for the sustainable yarn beyond the textile industry, with a circular zero waste process (where the waste of one process fuels a second and so on until there’s nothing left) leading Nienke to unearth its qualities as a natural dye; a chair, table and bio-plastic bowls were the outcome.
With the results of this research charted in a self-published 100-page book, Seaweed Research, Hoogvliet’s experimentation with sustainable materials continued – discovering that fish skins, a waste product of the fishing industry, can also be made into a beautiful leather. Finding a chemical-free, labour-intensive method for tanning the skins, Nienke reached into the deep again and came out with an emotive and alluring material that gives us that hope for the future.
Whilst there is an intrinsic beauty in fish skin and seaweed, how does one arrive at used toilet paper? By invite it would seem: impressed with her fine work with sustainable materials, the Dutch Water Authorities invited Hoogvliet to design products that would show off their good work in recovering valuable energy and raw materials from wastewater. Eight sewage treatment plants have already transformed into Energy Factories, with preparations underway for a further nine, green electricity can be garnered from the treatment process – as can phosphate, which can be used to produce fertilisers.
Toilet paper, though. Inescapable toilet paper. Setting ‘fine sieve’ installations into place, water authorities Aa & Maas and Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier have been able to reclaim plenty of the 180,000 tonnes of toilet paper that is flushed down the toilets of the Netherlands each year. That’s 180,000 trees. Hoping to create the sort of positive association with this unpleasant material that their hard work and investment justifies, waste material maestra Nienke Hoogvliet used the cleaned pulp to produce unique, handmade products: a collection of objects, consisting of a table, lighting, and decorative bowls to demonstrate how second-hand loo roll can be integrated into our homes.
Adding brass to the table, showing that something from the sewer can have great value again, Hoogvliet elevates the most obnoxious of waste materials to unimaginable heights. To think that food could be served from bowls made with used toilet roll may be a stretch for some; but is there a better way to drill home the importance of alternative materials, to challenge the public to reflect and to take steps to address their own individual wastefulness?
Nienke Hoogvliet proves time and time again that she can find a rare beauty in materials once discarded, no matter how disagreeable. As hotels and the hospitality industry at large continue to cast away waste at alarming rates, it’s high time to consider the sort of circular zero waste process that informs this young design talent’s ongoing investigations. It’s time to put a century of ecological abuse into reverse. Before we’re all in the shit.
[Photography by Femke Poort / courtesy of Studio Nienke Hoogvliet]
James Davidson is Editor-In-Chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.