Art schools are messy places. They're also places populated by starving students with limited resources. At the Royal College of Art in London, a bit of clever cross-disciplinary collaboration uses the school's scraps to create free art supplies for its students and a small business that could net the school a bit of income, resulting in one of the more elegant closed-loop manufacturing systems that we've seen. A new project called From Here for Here effectively turns the school into a recycling plant for its own waste by using cast-off materials from each department to make the one product that every art student needs: pencils.
"Design is about exploring the social and natural opportunities around us."
"Design is about exploring the social and natural opportunities around us, taking advantage of every situation by connecting human activities with environmental principles," recent graduate Ariane Prin tells Co.Design. She became intrigued with the idea of recycling the school's waste when she noticed the piles of sawdust swamping the school's woodshop. The indiscriminate scraps that flew off the machines became mixed on the floor, resulting in kind of post-industrial granola of plastic, resin, wood, and fiberboard, all of which was thrown away. Prin was able to combine the scraps with flour from the school's cafe and water, resulting in a paste that dried into a chunky yet unyielding material — perfect for pencil casing. The texture provides a nice grippy surface, plus the oatmeal-like bits makes for an aesthetically interesting object (critical for a designer pencil, of course).
For the lead, Prin began experimenting with materials salvaged from each department. Early on, she happened upon several winning combinations that yielded interesting color combinations, like dried-out clay from the ceramics department combined with liquid graphite from the glass department, or leftover ink from the printmaking department blended with wax from the jewelry department. "One way or another, there is always bins full of materials everywhere at school," she says. "These are treasures for me."
Prin admits she knew absolutely nothing about making pencils when she set out to launch the project. "I contacted a few pencil manufacturers and watched a lot of video," she says. At first she assembled the pencils by hand using a series of molds, then moved on to using a series of machines like syringes (the video shows a funny experiment with a pasta maker). With a team of engineers at the school, Prin eventually designed her own "co-extruder," a simple device that pushes out the lead and casing in the appropriate ratios, like an industrial Play-Doh machine.
Prin and her team produced about 160 pencils during the Royal College of Art show, many of which she has already sold (those interesting in buying one can email her at postmaster[at]arianeprin[dot]com). The hope is that the school can continue to produce the pencils until each of the 1,044 students owns one, effectively giving each student a stake in the sustainability process. Prin would also like to eventually be able to sell enough pencils to begin raising money for the school.
Even though her in-house extrusion process works well, she's not opposed to scaling up production. One bag of sawdust can make 90 pencils, says Prin, and the woodshop at the school produces about 170 bags of sawdust a year: That's 15,300 pencils just waiting to be made, not to mention the potential of collaborating with industrial woodshops in the area. "I will be visiting a pencil factory in a few weeks," she says. "I am really excited to have a chat with the engineers there."