For most people, a box of old VHS tapes sitting in the closet will eventually end up in the landfill. Few cities recycle videos, and unless they’re rare, nobody wants to buy them. But when a student in Mariana Acosta’s jewelry class found some videos at home, she started thinking about necklaces.
“Dafne rescued them from misery and started transforming them,” says Acosta, a designer who leads a project called Precious Waste at Mexico’s Universidad Gestalt de Diseño, helping students learn to design with trash.
Old videos aren’t easy to work with. “The tape just wanted to unroll, and every single time ended up on the floor in a messy pile,” says Acosta. “She wanted so hard to control the tape that one day I asked her to just let the mess be, to take a bunch of tape and just play with it. She ended up tangled in it, and from that she decided to design a ‘chaos vest.'”
Each student in the class starts by studying the trash around them–both what they’re throwing out themselves, and more unusual waste that they can find in different environments. “After a selection of at least 40 materials is made, they have to analyze them and meticulously classify them,” Acosta says. The material can be anything–egg cartons, soda can tabs, industrial packaging, old magazines–as long as it is abundant enough. Then they start to experiment.
To pass the class, the finished work has to be wearable and 100% finished. “The working out of the details is pivotal to the class process,” she says. Another student designed a dress from PET bottles, cutting the bottles into flower-like scraps that used every piece. As she added plastic petals to the dress, it kept getting heavier and harder to hold together. She had to redesign the connections to make it work.
“None of this can happen if the student is not committed to their material,” says Acosta. “I always tell them that if you spend enough time with it, it will talk back to you. And it is true. You have to understand what the material is trying to tell you about it, not the other way around.”
Though most of the designs are one-offs, some students are also working to turn waste into mass-produceable products. One plans to make jewelry from egg cartons and leather; another plans to use plastic bags collected from the beach. “Waste . . . can be as useful as precious metals or stones,” Acosta says.
Acosta, who has taught the class for a couple of years, started thinking about waste as a material as a grad student at Rhode Island School of Design. Her first assignment was to design 100 rings in a week, and as she ran out of metal, she started looking to things like the orange peel from her lunch as an alternate material.
“Everything became precious to me,” she says. “I started questioning where value lies in an object. . . . It does not matter what it’s made from; what matters is what you do to own it and make it precious, the time you spend exploring its transformative qualities, and enable a dialogue with it through a trial-and-error process. Preciousness lies in the process, not in the material.”