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Trash Cafe: A Pop-Up Coffeeshop Made From Food Packaging

Everything in this U.K. cafe, except the coffee, is recycled. Engineers, architects, and social scientists from Newcastle University spent three months building a pop-up cafe made entirely from food packaging—including plastic bottle chairs, walls made from cardboard boxes, and aprons for the baristas made from plastic bags.


The cafe isn't just an exercise in creativity, but part of a larger project looking at the future of upcycling, or designing products that are intended to be fully recycled when someone's done with them (versus "downcycling," the process for most current recycling, where pieces of products end up being spun into lower-grade materials). Researchers at Newcastle are exploring what role consumers play in upcycling—after all, they say, it's not helpful to design a product for future uses if consumers end up throwing them out:

The concept of upcycling is recognised as only successful if the general public not only recognize these new potentials in waste material, but are also motivated to do something with them too....plastic bottles, cartons, and other packaging, once regarded as worthless waste, may become more valuable if people identify these as components with a range of creative possibilities.

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In the cafe, the researchers are exchanging coffee for conversation: anyone who comes is asked to think about how they might start to reuse things they'd normally throw away. As people explore the cafe, they can scan QR codes on each object to learn where it came from, and how it was made. In the end, the researchers are hoping that non-designers will start to think about and take ownership of design and engineering ideas.

The cafe was designed to be easily disassembled and packed flat, so it can be moved to new locations over the year.

Up next for the researchers: looking more closely at how products can be better designed for eventual recycling. One of the researchers explains:

This would completely change the way we view 'waste.' For example, if we can design a milk carton like a Lego brick that could be fitted together with hundreds of others to build a garden shed, then the carton ceases to be waste. If these carton components can be joined in a multitude of different ways, then the construction and business possibilities are endless, limited only by the imagination of each individual.

Right at the source we are thinking about the value of the materials and how they might be used after their primary function is over, changing our perception of what is and isn't waste.

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Images courtesy of Newcastle University

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