Inspiring Ideas & Innovative Materials for a Sustainable Practice

Blog by Stefanie Cheong

After taking time to reflect on the amazing event ‘Inspiring, Innovative, Sustainable Material’s, organised by AAS in association with Interface, which happened earlier this year, I thought I would share some of the content and outcomes from the day. Useful for those who couldn’t make it along but also a good reminder for those who did.

The afternoon was packed full of speakers allowing you an insight to their discoveries, collaborations and developments towards a more sustainable practice. Inspiration was provided on many levels; a display of objects, discussions and prompts were carefully designed to help provoke collective and individual ideas around how you can explore your making practice and identify areas of improvement and innovation.

Electronic Waste supplied by Dr Sandra Wilson
Liquid Metals by Dr Sandra Wilson

Kick-starting the afternoon was Dr Sandra Wilson generously detailing her latest research project, extracting gold from post-consumer electronic waste. Working collaboratively with the Love Chemistry group at Edinburgh University they recovered the metal using various chemical processes. Sandra shared some shocking insights into the electronics industry – Approximately £15 Billion worth of silver and gold are used every year to produce our high tech equipment such as computers and mobile phones and if we continue to consume at this rate we may run out of gold in 25 years time. Currently only 11% of metals are recovered from electronic waste and Sandra believes that the next gold rush will be an “Urban Gold Rush” in our landfill sites. To put it in perspective it would take mining 1 tonne of ore to extract 30g of gold vs 1 tonne of mobile phones to extract 300g of gold and 1 tonne of circuit boards to produce 800g of gold. Admitting it’s not without its challenges, as chemical processes have to be used to extract the metal from the circuit boards the project is definitely raising awareness and is a step in the right direction.

Dr Sam Vettesse 3D printable material using textile waste

Next up we had Dr Sam Vettesse who specialises in Materials Research in the School of Design at Edinburgh Napier University. Her projects take on a very collaborative approach to develop an array of interesting outcomes. Sam has worked combining PLA (poly lactic acid), a material made from vegetable starch that biodegrades in a composter fusing it with local waste materials form the textile industries such as cashmere, leather and wool. Some of these materials have been made into compounds to be used with modern technology such as 3 d printing and lazer cutting – potential accessible ways that could be explored in a makers practice. Energetic and enthusiastic Sam describes her investigating as playing, experimenting with ideas and opening these discoveries for others to explore and embrace.

As a breakout session Fiona Pilgrim of Interface came armed with cards and questions to allow for discussions and insight into our own practices, firstly considering the materials we use, and how we use them. This acted as a nice breather between the presentations and gave space for thinking through how we could approach identifying areas of improvement. What would we like to change or find the solution to how could we use these new materials that were being shared, could we come up with new ideas to reclaim, recycle and reuse? These are questions we could all begin to explore, even if you never made it to the workshop.


Interface work to connect businesses (of all sizes and from all sectors) with academic expertise to increase research and development activity leading to the creation and development of new products, services and processes. There is funding available in the form of innovation vouchers which could help contribute towards the cost of the academic’s research time for viable projects. Dr Sandra Wilson and Dr Sam Vettesse have both used the scheme to help further their research.

Robyn Plaice-Inglis from CelluComp Ltd came representing the scientific side of these connections, CelluComp have been producing Curran a cellulose material made from root vegetable waste that can be used in many forms, they champion themselves in material change for good. Cellulose is binder, and additive in products such as paper and paint and Curran is produced using less energy and less chemicals than many other alternatives making it sustainable but has also improved the durability and quality of the binder material. CelluComp have been working with Sam to explore the world of Fungi for use in the textile industry, this project is still at the experimental stages but is showing promising developments.

There was such a buzz about the room, lots of ideas flowing and having artist Lorna Fraser come to share her Smart Plastics project really helped visualise how as makers we could approach this way of working. Part of a team of makers Lorna, along with our Chair Carol Sinclair a ceramicist, Fiona Hutchison textile artist and Carla Edwards a jeweller who works in colourful resin, came together to look at how they could work and develop “Smart Plastics”.

Object by Lorna Fraser using Smart Plastic

Paired with researcher Dr Peter Wilkie an expert on South Asian Trees based at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Professor Michael Shaver leader of the Green Materials Library at the School of Chemistry in the University of Edinburgh, together have been exploring gutta-percha a bi product from trees, PCL polycaprolactone which is degradable but is malleable in hot water and PLA in pellet form or used as filament in 3D pens.

It was great to hear of their journeys, the positive discoveries but also the difficulties they have faced. Lorna has given me an alternative way to view plastic, it has such a negative reputation but not all plastic is bad, it is integral to how our societies function in many ways and has helped replace the ivory trade. However, single use plastic is and we need to consider what we use and why, reassessing our attitudes towards waste and not plastic. Lorna and team are challenging others perspectives on the material, they have an upcoming exhibition using these materials in their work, conceptually exploring these tensions and treating it as valuable and precious, I can’t wait to see their outcomes.

There was a lot to reflect on and think about, the main thing I took from the speakers was their ability to play, an integral part of material exploration, something as adults and makers we often forget to do or cannot justify the time for. The relationships between art and science are necessary to strengthen innovation, creative thinkers can identify material use and purpose and scientists can provide the research and understanding to achieve and support the development.


If you have any questions or if any ideas were sparked on the day, or after reading this, please continue the conversation with myself via Applied Arts Scotland at 

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