Discarded aluminum cans can be an urban blight. But designers at Studio Swine want to turn them into something else: an integral part of a city's character. To transform such a major segment of trash in São Paulo, the Studio Swine team, splitting their time between their London base and Brazil's largest city, created Can City, a mobile foundry that roams the streets, melting aluminum cans down into stools.
The scale of São Paulo is truly massive, a hive of humanity that looks busy even from space. It has a population of more than 20 million people, and that leads to massive waste. Helping to keep a tidal wave of refuse from overtaking the city is a legion of catadores, informal waste collectors who pull handmade carts and make their living by selling what they find to scrapyards. Their efforts, according to Studio Swine, are responsible for a staggering 80% of all recycling in São Paulo.
Though they remove an enormous amount of garbage from the streets every day, catadores are not necessarily beloved in the city. Many local authorities believe that their presence—people with overflowing trash carts—makes the city look more untidy, not less. What Studio Swine wondered was whether they could upgrade the associations, overturning prejudices by making the work catadores do synonymous with not rubbish but stools and sculptures that millions of people in São Paulo can enjoy every day.
"One of the things we're interested in is how design can help an area retain a strong regional identity, even in an increasingly globalized world," says Studio Swine co-founder Alexander Groves. "It makes us explore design by looking at the larger system within which it exists. We make work that deals with the materials, skills, and situation that are unique to a specific place."
With Can City, Studio Swine wanted to create something catadores could take around the city with them on their rounds in order to make—and demonstrate the making of—one-of-a-kind objects to benefit the local community. Gathering old pipes, a beer barrel, and cement from a scrapyard, Studio Swine created a foundry that could easily be transported behind a catadore's cart, melting down aluminum cans to create furniture pieces, which can then could either be left behind or sold.
The process is called sand casting, and it takes about 60 cans to make each stool. It may seem like a lot, but it's just a drop in the bucket compared with the thousands of cans left behind in even a single soccer match. Each finished chair or stool is a unique work of art in its own right.
"Can City's not just about celebrating catadores, it's about looking at new possibilities for what can made locally," Groves tells Co.Design. Can City hopes to prove that even small industries, like São Paulo's catadores, can prosper, using materials like the waste of a city and turning it into something of real design and artistic value.
"The potential of mobile sand casting is truly limitless," says Grove. "From souvenirs to architectural structures, it can transform the face of the city." The next Can City may be a literal one.