thumbnail Trash café - taking upcycling up a level

It’s more than 50 years since the BBC’s Blue Peter first opened our eyes to the endless potential of a squeezy bottle and some double-sided sticky tape.

Now experts at Newcastle University have taken ‘upcycling’ to a whole new level by creating a café entirely from waste.

Using everything from plastic drink bottles to cardboard boxes, a team of engineers, architects and social scientists have spent three months creating a café where everything except the coffee is recycled.

Designed to challenge our perception of waste as well as explore new ways of creating sustainable buildings, the new pop-up café is the brainchild of civil engineers Professor Stephanie Glendinning and Dr Mark Powell and Director of Architecture Graham Farmer.

“Upcycling is about taking material that would normally be considered waste and turning it into something of value,” explains Dr Powell. “The question is how do we encourage people to think and behave differently towards food and product packaging?

“It’s already happening in areas such as the fashion industry but we wanted to see if we could take it up a scale and use what we would normally throw away to create a sustainable structure which not only raises awareness but also triggers discussion and motivates change.

“In other words,” adds Mr Farmer, “The café itself – from the plastic bottle chairs and the cardboard box walls to the recycled plastic bag aprons being worn by the staff – will stimulate conversation and hopefully a change in mindset about what is and isn’t waste.

“In this project we are exchanging coffee for conversation, asking people to think about how they might re-use stuff they normally throw away.

“It is also an opportunity to explore how we make buildings more sustainable and how we might use waste materials to better effect.”

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the U-café project has been carried out largely by postgraduate architecture students as part of a linked research project. The project connects research directly with teaching and develops a sense of responsibility amongst young designers to use and source sustainable materials.

As well as collecting the waste material, the 18 students have been working with engineers to design the basic “building components” so the café can be easily dismantled at the end and moved to a new location.

Each building component is labelled with a QR code which links directly to the project website so that visitors to the café can explore in more detail the materials that have been used and how the structure has been scavenged and pieced together.

The café is planned as a venue for ‘customers’ to take ownership of design and engineering ideas, making these directly relevant to life in the city.  The U-Café idea is to incorporate these social and cultural needs from the beginning, by designing and engineering with people and not simply for them.

Professor Glendinning says the next step is to look at how materials could be re-engineered at source with a view to being reused at the end.

“This would completely change the way we view ‘waste’,” she explains. “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 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.”

U-Café will be open for business between 9.30am-4pm, Tuesday 16 to Thursday 18 April in the new Fine Art Lobby opposite Northern Stage, Newcastle University main campus.

All ‘customers’ will get a free cup of coffee and will be entertained on Thursday by ‘Junk Agency’, a group of Newcastle University musicians who will perform a concert with music made from sampling CDs and cassettes found in rubbish bins and skips.

After this week, the café will be flat-packed and reopen in various locations around the North East including Eldon Square.  It will also feature as part of this year’s British Science Festival, which is being hosted by Newcastle University with Northumbria University and Newcastle City Council as associate partners, from September 7-12.


published on: 16th April 2013

Key Facts:

  • Newcastle University is a Russell Group University
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  • We have a world-class reputation for research excellence and are spearheading three major societal challenges that have a significant impact on global society. These themes are: Ageing, Sustainability, and Social Renewal
  • Newcastle University is the first UK university to establish a fully owned international branch campus for medicine at its NUMed Campus in Malaysia which opened in 2011
  • 90% Satisfaction level from our international students (ISB 2014)
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