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Food waste becomes interior design by Carolina Härdh

“Carolina Härdh has taken food scraps from restaurants and returned them to the industry in the form of interior design. Through a relatively simple process, oyster and mussel shells and fish bones are transformed into a permanent material which, in forms such as furniture, table decorations, and beautiful, tactile surfaces, contributes to the overall restaurant experience. The idea has already been implemented on a small scale, but the process has the potential to be refined, streamlined and scaled up. It can also serve as a source of inspiration for similar circular models involving food waste and leftover materials in restaurants and other industries.” Motivation of the jury.

It is possible to trace Carolina Härdh’s winning project to her interest in philosophy and especially to Immanuel Kant’s idea of the “thing in itself”. This is the idea that we have to distinguish between how things are in reality and how we perceive them subjectively.

Härdh uses Kant’s idea to approach design projects with an open mind. It’s a way of trying to see beyond the imagined, especially when it comes to using leftover things that would otherwise have been thrown away.

– We have learned that a chair is a chair, and we have learned how to use a chair. I used Kant’s philosophy and pretended that I was completely uneducated and didn’t understand what a chair is and what you can do with it, says Härdh.

To find objects to apply the thinking to, she visited various recycling centres and landfills. There she found, among other things, a discarded exhaust pipe.

– Now this exhaust pipe no longer works as an exhaust pipe. Can we make something else out of it? I turned it into a lamp. It’s a bit the same thing with oyster shells, not seeing them as rubbish but seeing something else in them.

She benefits from this attitude in her job as an interior designer. Härdh works a lot with recycling and tries to make full use of doors and glass sections. Even when she chooses to use new materials, such as panels, the waste pieces become shelves on the walls.

– I carry this thought with me all the time, she says.

At the beginning of her studies to become an interior architect and designer, Härdh became perplexed. She felt thrown into a context where she was expected to design new furniture for a world where everything already existed.

– Why should I do something new when there are already a lot of things we can use and should take responsibility for instead?

The desire to take advantage of what already exists inspired her to start researching different materials. In the beginning it was scattered. She looked at everything from paper to sticks, eggshells to coffee grounds.

– I thought: oh my god, I’m going to university but I’m doing kindergarten stuff! It was very exploratory, but also hard at the beginning because I didn’t know where it was going to go.

By chance, she met the Swedish oyster shucking master, Johan Malm, during a visit to restaurant Isabelle in Gothenburg where he was hard at work. Härdh asked what he did with the leftover oyster shells and was told that they are just thrown away.

The idea that every restaurant is throwing oyster shells away set Härdh’s creativity in motion. She had found an available material, genuinely rooted in the Swedish west coast. The work that would form the basis of her thesis on the Master’s programme in design had begun.

The aim of the project is to show how by-products or waste in one business can become a raw material in another. In this case, it is the food industry’s waste that becomes a raw material for interior designers – and the interior of the restaurant of the future may be made from the restaurant’s own waste. From menu to furniture.

The largest component in Härdh’s new material is crushed oyster shells of the species Crassostrea gigas, an invasive species that in recent years has spread rapidly on the west coast and is often perceived as a problem in Swedish waters. Because local connections and craftsmanship are important to Härdh, she only works with gigas oysters from oyster diver Lotta Klemming in Grebbestad.

– Much of Lotta Klemming’s work is done by hand, and she is often asked why they don’t make the work more efficient. It is important that we understand that the consequences of streamlining nature will be devastating for us. Ensuring sustainable production patterns is part of the global sustainability goals, and it is required that the production process is sustainable at all stages.

Härdh also came into contact early on with chef Sofia B Olsson at Vrå in Gothenburg, one of the few restaurants where she could regularly come and pick up leftover oyster shells for the project. Vrå has Lotta Klemming’s gigas oysters on the menu.

– The method was to stick only to what was in Vrå’s waste bag. It finally landed in a material that, in addition to oyster shells, contains rice starch as a binder, fish glue to hold the components together, and brown algae as reinforcement.

The rice starch comes from the water that rice is soaked in overnight at the restaurant. Normally they drain the water in the morning, but nowadays it is saved in bottles. The glue is made from fish bones and scales that have been greatly reduced.

Even the kelp is waste from the restaurant and serves as reinforcement. The algae also contributes aesthetically, adding darker contrast to the lighter shades of the oyster shell.

In the first stage, the material looks like rough concrete. It is then puttied to make the surface softer and smoother. Oyster shells contain lime, and the material therefore takes on a concrete-like character.

– The first objects she produced are a stool named Gigas, and a food container which in Japanese is called hashioki. The point of doing something on a smaller scale and something on a larger scale is to show that the material can be used in many ways.

The waste material from the manufacture of the stools was used to make the chopstick holders, which give guests a close, tactile contact with the material. Both the stool and the holder become physical evidence of what is possible when raw materials are handled in circular processes.

– I knew that the material would be very heavy. I had to buy a trolley to be able to move it around.

Härdh likes to work a lot with her hands, and it’s a way to reduce electricity consumption. But above all, it is a stance. Not wanting to streamline. Crushing the oyster shells by hand using a simple mortar and a stainless steel perforated cutlery rack from IKEA has been an important part of the process.

– Often people’s first reaction is: ‘God, how cool!’ But then it easily turns into: ‘But this can’t be mass-produced! Are you going to stand in your basement and chop the shells?’ People immediately start thinking about the idea that everything has to be mass-produced. That’s where I want to provoke, that thought!

One of Härdh’s next projects is to deliver a bar counter to the recently opened restaurant Bulot in Gothenburg. It is the first time the material has been properly tested in a restaurant environment. She also has plans for a mini exhibition at Garveriet in Floda that explains the material and the process behind it.

For Härdh, the continuation of the project is very much about contacts and passion.

– I look up to Lotta Klemming extremely much, and think she is so awesome in what she does. Plus I’ve completely fallen in love with oysters as a material. I don’t want to do anything other than that. There is a value in that, to become an extreme expert on something. As a person, I have always been very volatile and did not stick with things because I’d get tired. Now I just want to stick with this, and it’s such a nice feeling.

Circular Gastronomy research partners has helped Härdh to develop her project in several ways. The Swedish research institute RISE has helped analyse the material to develop a surface treatment that is suitable for the restaurant environment. Generation Waste has contributed expertise regarding suitable storage containers for oyster shells and other food waste in restaurants. Today, interior objects made from leftover materials can be found at the restaurant Vrå and Bulot in Gothenburg. In addition, the publicity surrounding the win has led to Härdh receiving international inquiries from researchers with similar projects, and collaboration requests from large Swedish companies.