Iceland: recycle, rethink & redesign

Birta Rós Brynjólfsdóttir is a recent graduate of Iceland Academy of the Arts. Fresh-faced, with an enthusiasm for designing a more environmentally conscious world, she and her collaborators have been making moves to reduce Iceland’s waste, while simultaneously creating a space for Reykjavík locals to explore their creative side.

We meet Birta down on the Reykjavík docks where she and her two collaborators – Hrefna Sigurðardóttir and Auður Ákadóttirare – have been hosting a freight container as part of the The Travelling Embassy of Rockall. Haugfé, the project they have developed for Rockall, started during their time at art school and refers to a Viking burial practice in which personal belongings, such as swords, or even horses, were taken to the grave so that the deceased would carry it with them to the afterlife.

“We got interested in trash”, Birta says, smiling at their unusual attraction to other peoples’ rubbish, “mainly because we could collect it for free. We used a lot of materials in our studies, making mock ups or even making our own products. We went to a few companies for school and then we thought, well, why can’t we go to all of the companies and find all of the spare materials that are around here? We are now in contact with over eighty companies here in the capital who give us their trash. Why we continue to work like this, even after studying, is because we want to keep using these materials where they are produced. As an island we are importing a lot of materials and also exporting a lot of waste.” Hrefna expands, “We don’t recycle here, we send it all to Sweden or to Germany. We thought it was good to use the waste materials locally because of course the transportation is also effecting the environment. We think this can be limited and we can make use of the unwanted materials here, locally. Essentially, we’re dealing with the afterlife of rubbish!”

The collaborators are keen to encourage their fellow islanders to be more conscious about the things they use. “Because we’re an island,” says Birta, “our grandparents used everything. Nothing was thrown away. But something was lost a few decades ago. People stopped reusing everything they had and stopped recycling. So we’re starting again.” Collectively they have found a deep gulf between how the older and younger generations of the island relate to the things they buy, have and use. “When we talk to older people they think it’s so normal and that of course we should be doing this,” Birta says, “But younger people are unaware of what is happening in this area. We’re so used to putting things in the trash and then it’s just gone and we don’t really know what happens to it. It just disappears. So we’re taking this topic up again.”

Hrefna believes improved economy, and therefore increased availability of goods, has played the biggest part in Icelanders’ relationship with materials.

“It comes with money, people can afford to continue buying new things. We had a workshop here last Saturday on making masks from trash and I was talking to a couple, they were seventy years old and they grew up on a farm in Iceland. They used to collect all the small bits of wool that came off the sheep. They collected them and got a small amount of money for it, but today we would never collect these things – although it is material and it is valuable. We could definitely make something out of it, but currently we don’t think about it as something valuable.”

Photo: Claire Dickinson

The collaborators acquire the waste materials – including rope, off-cuts of carpet and wood, hessian sacks, foil and rubber inner tubes – from the willing participating companies by touring the company premises directly with the CEO or a representative. “They tell us what they’re throwing away. In the beginning they have maybe two materials they are throwing away, like pallets for example, but when we walk through it we’re like, ‘What about this – are you throwing this away?’ and, ‘Wow, what about this?’. Often we’re half way down the trash bins!”, says Hrefna, giggling at their audacity.

“We come to it with different eyes. For them, because they see it every day, they see only trash, but we come looking to make something and so of course we see it in a different light. When we bring it here to Rockall, a place that looks like we are putting the materials to use, we are presenting them in a way that people think about how they can find purpose for them. People are always really interested, saying, ‘Where did you get this? I could definitely use this!’ and they count up maybe four or five things they could use it for at home.”

In return for the public’s free use of the gathered materials Haugfé requests an image of the product made with the collected trash, via social media or by email. “We are trying to make a bank of ideas and hopefully the creations from these materials will move to a bigger scale because of course this is only a fraction of what is being thrown away. We’re only taking one bag of a material when maybe there are ten thousand bags of a material,” explains Birta. “We are looking for collaborations with companies to see how we can take it to the next level. It would be great if people can start ordering through the companies and take bigger portions of the materials.”

Mask workshop at Haugfé, photo courtesy of Birta

Haugfé is the starting point, a prototype to prove what can be achieved with the ambition of accelerating to a more enterprising scale. “By taking these first steps,” says Birta, “and creating a space for people to see what is going to trash, then maybe something can happen – people realise that this waste is here, it exists, and it can be valuable. People start getting ideas.” Ultimately the collaborators have their sights set on creating a serious, long-term solution that is environmentally, socially and morally beneficial for their community and economy by initially engaging people at the grass-roots level, within their neighbourhood.

So far Haugfé has been happily facilitated by Reykjavík’s companies and Birta is thankful for how supportive they have been, explaining that the project is actually in the companies interests. “They can benefit from it because it costs a lot of money to get rid of waste.” Hrefna positively continues, “Also, I think most people want to do good. I believe that at least. Going to these companies, we never had a negative response, they were always really willing to find a solution to make it work.”

I’m interested to know if Haugfé’s ethos is something ingrained in the consciousness of Icelanders, or whether their environmentally conscious approach is a minority outlook. Hrefna believes their way of thinking is something that has developed as a result of their time at art school.

“It’s definitely part of the education and it has changed a lot in recent years. It’s getting more material based. We’re used to starting with some materials and then experimenting. The material helps you to a conclusion. It’s not that we know what we want to make and then we find a material to make it out of, we start with the material and then we find the perfect idea or product, or whatever, for that material. We are looking for the perfect fit for that material. That of course slows things down, there’s a lot of time spent on research and the conclusion is in the possibilities of the material.”

Thinking back on my own experiences of art school I can’t help but feel guilty about how much waste I created in my quest to make the perfect painting. I wonder how the three deal with the nature of making work and the seemingly unavoidable consequence of producing waste in order to create. Birta admits it is a real dilemma for them but, that being said, they find the challenge exciting. “Although it’s a problem, I’m glad I’m starting in product design now and not a few years ago when there was not much emphasis on the research and the thought processes we have been encouraged to go through. I look at it as a challenge to find the way through, to find the right solution to the question somehow. We feel better working this way.”

Photo: Amy Moffat

Haugfé isn’t the only project on the go for Birta as she is also collaborating on an on-going project with other former class mates. Together they work to break down and discover the possibilities for one of Iceland’s newly gained raw materials, the willow tree, a project initiated by Garðar Eyjólfsson. The group set about deconstructing the tree – working with it in its many micro components – and reassembling those found elements. Birta explains, “Willow is the primary plant here in Iceland and we don’t have a lot of woodland or forests so it’s quite important, it helps to prepare the soil for other species. We’re trying to grow more forests. Willow is not often looked at, or regarded as a useable material, so we just really went deep into looking at the possibilities. What is this material to us? Do we need or want it? Can we even use it? We created this material library of uses for willow; from paper, string, we boiled the bark to make a kind of tar substance, we burnt the willow and used the ash for paper making. During that process we used only the willow itself.” In going through these steps they have managed to render new materials that stand alone. It’s clear that Birta and her contemporaries, even though fresh out of art school, have a genuine appetite for examining the resources available locally and making real contributions to developing a sustainable design future for the country.

Looking ahead, Birta feels positive about the destiny of product design in the country. She is encouraged by the fact she is part of a movement of inquisitive thinkers and makers who are questioning current systems and looking for more beneficial alternatives that have the potential to create real-life impacts on the way the country and society moves forward. The young designers coming out of the Iceland Academy of Arts appear focused on finding useful and alternative methods of developing a culture that works for the environment, for the community and one that is prioritised by morals not money, even though the ideas being fleshed out are proving that morally and environmentally efficient methods can be financially beneficial for the country’s businesses as well.

Maintaining and utilising nature’s abundant gifts is clearly part of the collaborators conceptual methods and subjects. At Haugfé the artists believe their geography has intrinsically impacted on their path. “You can’t take one thing out of the picture, of course everything affects you,” says Hrefna when I ask about how their constant proximity to wide-open spaces plays a part in their conceptual thinking.

“We are really close to nature and so we are not disconnected from the circle – from the cycle. We’re still connected to the farmers who tend the land and produce and kill the animals for example. We can see it all, maybe a bit better than people in big cities where you see the burger in the store, packaged on the shelf, and you don’t know where it comes from. Of course I can’t talk for everyone else who lives in the cities, but I think we are still very connected to where things start and where they end. It’s very present. That plays a part in what we do.” Birta agrees, “It’s definitely important and the perfect thing is, it takes ten minutes to get out into isolation, that’s part of why we’re so connected. I feel the need to regularly go out and stay in a more quiet place – even though our city isn’t that busy. Everyone seems to travel a lot, even just taking a few hours out.”

Rockall’s platform has been an affirmative experience for Haugfé and has demonstrated to the group how engaged the Icelandic audience can be with their forward-thinking ideas. “I think design and arts and music is a big field in Iceland. I think it’s the core of our society. People are always looking for something new and fresh and we have found that people have been really interested in what we’re doing here.” Birta positively concludes – “I think we have a lot of systems to rethink and redesign and I think more people in Iceland are catching on. We have a few projects tackling waste in different areas. We are just one part of that wave. Hopefully it will grow bigger.”

Birta Ros Brynjolfsdottir and her collaborators Auður Ákadóttirare and Hrefna Sigurðardóttir were interviewed by Amy Moffat for issue two of Junko, Junko Iceland. This is an edited version of the original article. Follow Junko on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

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