Designer's amazing creations ask us to rethink waste and the future of Jozi

Matthew Edwards' 'New Projects: Johannesburg's Material Future' is an ever-growing library of fascinating objects that once were junk, writes Stefanie Jason

24 January 2021 - 00:01
By Stefanie Jason
Designer Matthew Edwards fashioned this recycled marble-like ring from the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) used to make plastic containers and bottles.
Image: Supplied/Matthew Edwards Designer Matthew Edwards fashioned this recycled marble-like ring from the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) used to make plastic containers and bottles.

Designer Matthew Edwards, of the creative studio Big Circle, holds a three-dimensional cube in the palm of his hand. It's small with smoothed-over jagged sides. The deep blue and white colours dance together, swirling as if they were in a slab of marble. It's hard to imagine that this object, that looks like a semi-precious gemstone, is made from waste plastic bottles.

The cube is one of several objects that fill Edwards's latest project, an ever-growing library of materials generated from inorganic and organic material into fascinating objects with the potential to shapeshift even further. Titled New Projects: Johannesburg's Material Future, Edwards invites those engaging with his innovations to rethink waste and the material future of the city.

I met Edwards in his home-based Joburg studio in early 2020, a few weeks before the government announced the nationwide lockdown. In the space — filled with industrial tools, a makeshift gas burner, respirator mask and boxes labelled with the names of various types of waste and organic substances — Edwards walked me through New Projects, his digital and physical dossier of materials, an extension of his design reputation for innovation and experimentation.

Matthew Edwards in his  studio.
Image: Supplied Matthew Edwards in his studio.

Born and raised in Joburg, Edwards, who studied industrial design at the University of Johannesburg, said he's always been fascinated by the stories materials tell. "I'm a designer who has the ability to make do." He's interested in using whatever materials are available, suitable or adjustable for particular needs and scenarios.

The project's tangible display, which is presented in workshops, features an exhibition board of materials labelled with details of where they were sourced, their composition and the date and process of their transformation or creation. The project is an archive of the new life of materials and detailing their place in a circular design process, in which their existence is endless.

"The materials library is a constant work in progress. Materials are added as more workshops happen," says Edwards. He facilitates interactive workshops open to artists and designers from across Joburg, who will contribute to the library.

More than 90 materials, ranging from recycled paper, plastic, metals and leather made from kombucha, were presented at the first workshop, which took place in December. "I wanted to create an open-source space that's democratised in the sense that it can be added to by designers, artists and other people during workshops," says Edwards, asking: "What is Johannesburg's material future?"

Edwards has listed a few organic products that form the ingredients of some of the objects in New Projects on the whiteboard in his studio: wood chips, avocado skin and pit and mycelium — a mushroom-based biodegradable material. "The library's inorganic materials primarily consist of waste from household and industry — plastic, textiles, concrete, metal and glass".

Some of the recycled materials on display at one of designer Matthew Edwards' workshops. In his latest project, Edwards invites those engaging with his innovations to rethink waste.
Image: Supplied/Matthew Edwards Some of the recycled materials on display at one of designer Matthew Edwards' workshops. In his latest project, Edwards invites those engaging with his innovations to rethink waste.

The online platform, similar to a blog, has the information and formulas used to create the objects, and will be accessible to anyone who's interested. New Projects presents the various life stages of materials and transparently shares their possible uses. By exhibiting the materials ahead of their metamorphosis, their potential to transmute is displayed. Closely reading each object's label, which shows its origin, make-up and characteristics, invites you to consider what each of these materials reveals about our society.

Edwards was selected to be part of the Circular Design Lab, a project developed by the British Council in collaboration with the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation. He and nine other creatives from across Africa visited the UK in late 2019 to explore new sustainable solutions for their design practices, drawing from concepts of circular design. "When I went to London, I saw a great opportunity for open-source materials research in Johannesburg," he says.

The concept of circular design is to design waste and pollution out of processes. "Traditional design approaches are focused on the needs of the end user," according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But designing for a circular economy means "understanding the impact of our design on stakeholders and building in feedback loops to help identify and address the unintended consequences of our design decisions", it adds. Designers need to consider the needs of their customers across the value chain and the consequences of their designs on the environment.

"There's a dissatisfaction with the prevailing, traditional, linear 'extract-produce-use-dump' material and energy flow model of our modern economic system which is problematic in terms of economic, social and environmental sustainability," explain academics Jouni Korhonen, Cali Nuur, Andreas Feldmann and Seyoum Eshetu Birkie in an essay that looks at in-depth analytical research into circular design.

Edwards' previous designs have also taken sustainability into account. His prototype moss shoe is a concept sneaker that's alive, and his football boot was designed using a process called "design for repair", with material longevity in mind.

"South African communities generally have shoe repairers who fix shoes on the side of the road," he says about some of the elements that informed the design of the shoe. The project includes the shoe repairer and their informal economy into the life cycle of the shoe.

"I interviewed a shoe repairer to better understand how to make shoes more durable, but also to make his job easier by incorporating his knowledge into the design. I didn't know much about circular economy until it was introduced to me through the Circular Futures Lab."

Image: Supplied/Matthew Edwards "The moss shoe is an idea of what the future of footwear could look like," says designer Matthew Edwards.

Now Edwards' work draws from tenets of circular design, including the regeneration of natural systems, designing out waste and pollution, and keeping products and materials in use.

New Projects also references the practices of artisans from across Africa whose workis inherently circular in nature. "It's about creating with and reusing what we've got, without the millions of rands of investment in big machinery — we 'make do'."

Edwards shows me a palm-sized rectangular object he has created using sawdust mixed with water and agar-agar, a gel-like substance made from algae. This material could be the basis for a "new" piece of furniture. He's also working on generating materials from coffee waste and faux leather made from kombucha tea.

We go back to the blue and white cube made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) - a material used in packaging and for plastic containers and bottles. Edwards has chosen HDPE as a substance for many of the library's objects because of its fascinating material qualities when melted down and because of its ubiquity across Joburg.

"Plastics are interesting because they're omnipresent in our society and because of the collection ecosystem around them," Edwards says. This is an indictment of plastic systems that are widespread globally, and permeate SA; systems that are part of linear, mass production and distribution processes, and which often result in, or are components of, inequality, high consumption volumes and pollution.

Designer Matthew Edwards turned one of these cube made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) — a material used for plastic bottles — into a striking ring.
Image: Supplied/Matthew Edwards Designer Matthew Edwards turned one of these cube made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) — a material used for plastic bottles — into a striking ring.

So, as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare inequality across the globe and destabilises the fossil fuel industry, I wonder whether Edwards' new materials are an intervention that provokes the materiality of our cities, interrogating the structures that have led to our use of materials today perhaps propelling a rethinking of the city's processes to imagine a new material future.

Edwards also rethinks the design potential of the city's waste: "I'm interested in the manufacturing shortfalls in Johannesburg. We have a robust recycling space but widespread access to information on new materials is scant." Informal waste pickers play a major role in the city's recycling efforts — their work is not formally recognised or compensated fairly. And in a period of scarcity and uncertainty as a result of the pandemic, waste pickers have been marginalised even further.

"We've tried to identify these entangled and fraught systems and to make our innovative materials' vocabulary — that's aware of the nuances of the informal systems that exist in these ecologies — available," says Edwards. "An awareness of the city's intricacies adds to the value of the project as we unpack the energy, labour and cost of these materials and systems".

New Projects, for now, focuses on the Joburg municipal precinct, including the city centre and the Troyeville and Parktown neighbourhoods. "The duality of Johannesburg is interesting, as are its contradictions. You have industry, residential and suburban neighbourhoods in just the area we're looking at. There are also vast systems that revolve around them."

Eventually, the library will have a geographical chart with information about the source location of each material, signalling to designers and artists visiting the library where they can locate the various materials for their art. Recipes will expand on how the resources can be transformed according to the reuse, recycle and reduce manifesto.

"In a city like Johannesburg that has unique issues, distinct histories and diverse communities, a focus on circular design cognisant of the complexities of this particular location is critical to it making an impact", says Pavitray Pillay, environmental behaviour change practitioner at WWF South Africa. "Circular economy needs to be fine-tuned to the sociopolitical, cultural and economic climate in which it's applied as opposed to a blanketed framework."

We're becoming increasingly aware of the changes necessary in rethinking modern systems designed on excess, inequality and injustice — so Edwards' project is timely. We need to re-envision the world using radical imagination and creative dialogues.

• This is the first of a six-part story series, Design Futures Africa, about circular designers in Africa. Find the other stories at