It’s hard not to feel impressed when you enter the Miniwiz offices in downtown Taipei. After all everything seems to be made of reused materials. The business cards we exchange, the chairs, the stands are all made from recycled plastic bottles and agriculture waste.
Even the shades I receive as a gift have a case made of recycled CD’s.
Oh, and there’s also a plane. A full-size model aeroplane in the middle of the office. But we’ll get to that later.
“There is a misconception that recycled materials are ugly or of low quality,” says Thomas Biguet, Miniwiz’s Marketing Director. “If you’d have asked me before I joined Miniwiz what do I associate with recycled materials, I would only come up with toilet paper.”
“However we at Miniwiz have been creating new materials from recycled waste and show they can be used in beautiful and practical ways assuring to maintain high levels of quality and performances. We’re making sexy trash as you may see,” adds Biguet.
Se when you see all these creations in the office, at first you don’t imagine they’re made from recycled materials, which are then performance enhanced for new applications, in a process Miniwiz calls upcycling.
This Taipei-based startup has so far made everything from boats to buildings, from Nike store elements to Jackie Chan’s iPhone cases, in Europe, China, Taiwan and the US. All using its own materials made out of waste from all over the world, and especially from this small island.
But how did an eco-friendly idea become a sustainable business and the first Taiwanese company to be recognised as a ‘Technology Pioneer’ in 2015 in the category ‘Energy / Environment / Infrastructure’ by the World Economic Forum?
One man’s trash is another man’s gold
It all started 10 years ago in New York in the mind of Arthur Huang, an architect shocked by the sheer amount of waste he witnessed that Americans produced. Together with a Co-founder he created Miniwiz and started thinking of possible applications for such an abundance of abandoned materials.
However the size of the market in the US, coupled with the distance be-tween developers and factories, led the team to first move to China and then Taiwan. This small island is roughly the size of the Netherlands, with 23 million people, and one of the biggest producers of electronic equipment in the world, so the scope of its waste is overwhelming.
“The traditional way of getting rid of waste, is by depositing it in land sites or burning it in incinerators. Since the island is too small to have enough landfill, and incinerating it is not very effective in humid weather, [all these factors] together with the effects of air pollution have led Taiwan to focus on recycling,” says Biguet.
And focus it did.
Between 1997 and 2011, a series of government initiatives raised the recycling rates of the island from 5.87 per cent to more than 60 per cent. The Taiwanese government started taxing companies for the amount of waste they produced, and channelling it to recycling companies. Suddenly waste management became a lucrative business, with more than 2,000 recycling companies earning almost US$2.2 billion in revenue in 2012.
The largest electronic waste recycling institution in Taiwan, Super Dragon Technology Industries, even specialises in recovering precious materials (gold, copper) from e-waste such as computer motherboards and microprocessors, using a more eco-friendly mechanical process developed together with Miniwiz.
For a company like Miniwiz, this meant an almost infinite source of material for Huang and his crew of around 40 designers, architects and engineers to experiment with in their small lab, all within a distance of just 200km.
From wine bottles to planes
Since 2005, Miniwiz has created many different consumer products and models, all sprouting from the mind of Arthur Huang and his team of engineers.
The first product it came up with was the HYmini, a portable wind and solar green power generator for electronic applications. With the HYmini, you would only need your bicycle to charge your iPhone as you peddle.
And the offices seem refurbished by a sustainable version of Ikea. You have Eco-Morph Shelves, a mountable shelf made of recycled aluminium, CDs and DVDs, in mahogany or teak; there’s the Re-Wine, a wine bottle case made from reprocessed rice husks; and my favourite, the aforementioned aeroplane in the room
Sometimes the team does it just because it can. Recently, Miniwiz has been trying to replace the wings from the Rutan Aircraft Varieze, with flexible but resistant recycled material wings developed for this purpose. SRPX is a self-reinforced polymer (PET) with a strength close to that of carbon fibre. Plus it is recycled and re-recyclable.
It may then be turned into an Eco-Fighter, destined to survey any place where eco-crimes are being committed. It won’t have machines guns, but will be equipped with cameras instead.
“It is meant more to be an internal R&D and team building exercise. I’ve heard Arthur [Huang] himself wants to fly it, but I think we can just find some plane lover to do it,” quips Biguet.
Sustainable buildings for the future
Miniwiz doesn’t want to be seen as a designer company or architect studio but as a supplier of recycled materials for sustainable solutions.
In a world where half of the world’s energy goes into buildings — from construction, through use, and finally demolition — the whole cycle also contributes to almost half of the world’s carbon dioxide emission. Thus, a solution to sustainable building has become an obligation.
When the team realised that the future of the company wasn’t in consumer products, most of the products were discontinued, and the company steered into designing sustainable building structures, modules and interior design.
For materials, it just had to look at Taiwan’s drinking habits, more specifically the 4.5 billion plastic bottles thrown away in the island every year.What resulted is the first project that put them in the eyes of the public — the Eco-Ark, a nine-storey high pavilion built largely out of 1.5 million recycled plastic bottles for the 2010 Taipei Flora Expo. All for a third of what a traditional concrete and glass structure would cost.
“Traditional recycled materials weren’t used for high-level applications[ till now]. We specialise in using recycled materials to build infrastructure after having enhanced their performance. This is often achieved by adding recycled organic components, like rice husks for example,” says Biguet, while passing me a surprisingly light Poli-brick.
These bricks of translucent, naturally insulated, and durable material are 100 per cent made of PET from recycled water bottles, and then joined together as a giant honeycomb.
More recently the company has finished a recycling facility in Taoyuan for one of its collaborator and suppliers, the aforementioned Super Dragon Technology Industries.
In order to be faithful to that ecological approach, some elements of the new building like the exterior shading system are made of recycled PC enhanced with glass fibre recycled from circuit boards
Other projects have included a Nike Lab movable pavilion in Beijing for the launching of a Nike Flyknit, a flying building for last years Milan’s Fashion Week and the interior design of popular beer Taipei restaurant Le Ble’ d’Or made using, among other elements, their Poli-Ber bricks made from hop and beer making waste.
A business for the world
While it might seem like an unsustainable business model, the truth is that Miniwiz has created numerous possible solutions for a more sustainable world.
The company received many requests, especially from developing countries, to help develop the same infrastructure, technologies and activities abroad. Unfortunately, these countries cannot always catch up with the growth fast enough to allow it.
Recycled materials and upcycling applications are a growth market and Taiwan has some advantage in this field as the country started to develop related technologies and infrastructure a while ago.
The solutions are there in everyday trash, you just need to look hard enough. And if you have the same creative mind as the people at Miniwiz, you might make a business out of it.
Then who knows? Maybe harmless consumption can even be possible.
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