Finding viable and scalable alternatives to earth’s finite resources is one of the biggest challenges currently facing humanity. While some scientists and innovators are looking at bioengineering to reduce our environmental footprint – by growing meat in labs, for example – others are exploring natural materials that never previously been considered or exploited as a resource.

Inspired by the principles of nose-to-tail and root-to-leaf eating, designers are re-examining what is already harvested in our agricultural and industrial processes to identify new opportunities for tapping into the unexplored potential application of some natural resources.

Latvian designer Tamara Orjola’s research reveals the value of the 240m kilogrammes of pine needles wasted by the timber industry every year. Pine is one of the most widely distributed trees on the planet and 600m pine trees are cut down yearly in the EU alone. Orjola has developed a method of extracting fibres from the discarded needles, crushing, soaking, steaming, binding and pressing them to create a biodegradable furniture line of stools, benches and carpets.

Willow Tree Resources by Iceland Academy of the Arts

Seven final-year product design students from the Iceland Academy of the Arts investigated how to turn the willow tree into a resource. It is a common tree species on the island but has never found a commercial use. By deconstructing the tree and burning, boiling and distilling its elements, students created a range of materials including paper, glue and string. During the transformation process, the students only added heat and water to the raw materials to ensure any byproducts could be returned to the forest as fertiliser.

Forest Wool by Tamara Orjola

Research project Reconfiguration Of a Tree by Eindhoven-based studio Thomas Vailly focuses on the Mediterranean Pinus Pinaster species of resinous pine tree, which is harvested for its pitch. The studio invited five product designers to create alternative, sustainable, man-made materials from the tree’s natural components – black resin and pine wood – with no need for heavy chemical processing. Synthetic materials are ubiquitous in production processes and Thomas Vailly wanted to demonstrate that the materials developed, including biopolymers, sticky tar and flexible fibres, can be used in their natural state as building blocks for products, such as wooden clogs and room dividers, exercise aids and boats.

Reconfiguration Of a Tree by Thomas Vailly

There is an urgent need to replace our existing way of exploiting natural resources with new products, aesthetics and design that are shaped by a greater consideration of their role in preserving earth’s biodiversity and plant species.

Words → Elisa Cecilli