Refining the old into new: the best upcyling ideas

10 min reading time
Sustainable products are environmentally sound. But do they also make a lasting impression? These accessories, made for the BMW i Collection by designers in Berlin, provide the answer. So let’s take a fully electric tour of the city and make some new discoveries – like apple leather.

With regards to recycled products, we tend to think of rough paper or chunky plastic chairs rather than high-class accessories. When recycling waste for product design, however, use can also be made of the raw materials contained within. The keyword here is “upcycling.”

The Berlin-based designers Rasa Weber and Essi Glomb have been focusing on sustainable products for years. In their design studio, Blond & Bieber, they have, for example, developed eco-friendly textile dyes that are extracted from micro-algae.

Beyond sustainable fashion, Rasa Weber and Essi Glomb are committed to building connections between the worlds of science and creativity. “We are interested in innovative ways of producing forward-looking sustainable materials,” Glomb explains. This makes them the ideal guides for a foray through Berlin to meet up with three designer colleagues. In the recycling and upcycling fields, these fellow designers have developed ideas – both sustainable and impressive product ideas and advanced material uses – that have been selected by BMW Lifestyle for its i Collection.

As the vehicle for their tour, Rasa Weber and Essi Glomb have chosen a BMW i3. The BMW i brand, of course, doesn’t just signify e-mobility. Rather, sustainability is the guiding principle behind the BMW i, especially in the use of materials. That’s why the leather used in the interior is tanned in an eco-friendly way, using an olive leaf extract. And at the end of its life, 95% of a BMW i3 can be recycled.

Looking to the future: designers Rasa Weber (left) and Essi Glomb, as they drive through Berlin in a BMW i3 and discover intriguing upcycling ideas.
From waste fabric to pencils
From waste fabric to pencils
From waste fabric to pencils
From waste fabric to pencils

Upcycling in a pencil case

Rasa Weber and Essi Glomb’s first port of call is a café on the banks of the River Spree. There they meet Christine Arlt and Ulrich Riedel of the Manaomea, a label based in Olching near Munich. The business-owners have a unique take on upcycling: They produce pencils from textile and farming by-products.

Ulrich Riedel explains why wooden pencils are not really sustainable products: “The wood has to be of special quality and may not contain any knots. After it’s been sawn and milled, only 20% of the tree is actually used for the pencil casings. The rest ends up as wood chip.” Not what you would call a mindful usage of resources.

A sustainable encounter: Christine Arlt and Ulrich Riedel produce pencils from waste fabric.

LEAVING A LONG-LASTING IMPRESSION.

The BMW i Collection by BMW Lifestyle

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We make pencils from the waste fabric left over from the production of car seats.
Christine Arlt

co-founder and Managing Partner of Manaomea

For the BMW i Collection, Christine Arlt and Ulrich Riedel have developed an ingenious upcycling idea: a writing set made from the strips of fabric left over in the production of car seat covers. Manaomea purchases the fabric scraps for upcycling from BMW.

“We also make pencils, for example, from old garments,” adds Christine Arlt. “The exciting thing here is the individual character that the products take on as a result of the recycling. When a pencil is made specifically for me from one of my old pieces of clothing, I have a really personal connection to the product.”

Something discarded is turned into a new personal object – this upcycling idea is truly farsighted. Christine Arlt describes her alternative to throwaway products as follows: “The stronger your personal connection is to a product, the more you’ll appreciate it and the longer you’re likely to use it.”

Meet the pencil-makers in this video

From apple peel to accessories
From apple peel to accessories
From apple peel to accessories
From apple peel to accessories

Designer bags from apple waste

Our next stop? The 127-year-old Arminius Market Hall in Berlin’s Moabit district – one of the finest market halls in Germany. Here, Rasa Weber and Essi Glomb meet up with Hannes Parth of Frumat – a company based in South Tyrol, Italy, known for its “apple leather.”

“When apples are pressed for their juice, there are solids left over,” Hannes Parth explains. “This apple pomace, as it’s called, is much too good to be thrown away as organic waste.” Due to its high cellulose content, apple pomace is ideal for creating stylish upcycling ideas, Parth adds.

In South Tyrol, Italy, Hannes Parth makes imitation leather from apple byproducts – a material that is both sophisticated and sustainable, as seen in this BMW i Collection backpack.
Apple pomace is much too good to be thrown away as biowaste.
Hannes Parth

CEO of Frumat

Frumat uses the pomace and peel of apples to make “Apple Skin,” the brand name for its apple leather. With its smooth and refined surface, this imitation leather is a perfect replacement for animal-derived or purely chemical products. It’s suitable for use in sustainable clothing, accessories like designer bags, and even paper.

“In Europe alone, we incinerate or destroy three billion tons of waste every year,” says Hannes Parth as he chats to Rasa Weber and Essi Glomb. “We are thereby losing those materials forever!” In view of the growing world population and dwindling resources, the business owner sees upcycling and the use of recycled materials as absolutely essential.

To finish, Hannes Parth shows the two designers his beautiful, minimalistic backpack. This upcycling idea was created for the BMW Lifestyle i Collection in collaboration with Frumat and is manufactured in Italy. A laptop and notebook fits comfortably, as does a kilogram of fresh apples from the Arminius Market Hall.

Meet the apple leather-maker in this video

From plastic powder to sun protection
From plastic powder to sun protection
From plastic powder to sun protection
From plastic powder to sun protection

Sunglasses from a 3D printer

As so often in Berlin, venerable old facades conceal the visions of the future. The studio of Projekt Samsen, the final stop on Essi Glomb and Rasa Weber’s tour, is situated in a spacious apartment in the city’s Schöneberg district.

On a table, a machine is buzzing almost imperceptibly as, layer by layer, it produces something that will later become a pair of glasses. Lea Huch, who together with Hans-Christian Veith founded the Projekt Samsen business, explains, “We use this small 3D printer to generate the initial prototypes. For the material, we use polyamide powder. It’s fused together, one layer at a time, by a high-performance laser.”

With an eye on the future, Hans-Christian Veith and Lea Huch explain how products created using a 3D printer are sustainable – such as these sunglasses from the BMW i Collection.
3D printing avoids both production waste and long-distance transportation.
Lea Huch

Founder and CEO of Projekt Samsen

“What’s sustainable about glasses made using a 3D printer?” Rasa Weber asks. “For one thing, we reuse any leftover powder,” replies Lea Huch. “So, there is virtually no production waste. In addition, this additive production process makes complicated tools that have to be specially made superfluous and long-distance transportation unnecessary.” A 3D printer can be set up practically anywhere where the products are ultimately needed, she adds. What’s more, when items are manufactured on demand, there’s no surplus production.

Particularly in the luxury goods industry, 3D printing has proven its worth. The segment often involves small product runs and customized pieces. The two sunglass models that Projekt Samsen has developed for the BMW i Collection are suitable for any shape of head thanks to their flexible frame. As accessories, they require neither screws nor hinges and are therefore significantly lighter than conventional glasses. And because no metal parts are used, they are also easy to recycle.

In this way, 3D printing helps ensure high levels of comfort for the wearer, sustainability – and also individuality, as Lea Huch explains: “Customers can personalize their glasses in the online configurator by specifying a particular color and engraving style. This means that the glasses can then be fully manufactured here in Berlin using a 3D printing process.”

Visit the sunglass printers in this video

Appreciation instead of blind consumption

Following this fascinating trip around Berlin, the two designers return to their own studio. “All upcycling ideas and recycling approaches we’ve seen today are aimed at reducing waste and production surpluses,” says Essi Glomb in summary. Rasa Weber agrees with her: “There’s no mindless consumption, no ephemeral fashion items, but instead sustainable products with which customers can identify. And about which they know where, how, and from what they are produced – key factors for the future.”