Sarah Christensen Makes Home Accessories From Used Coffee Grounds

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Sarah Christensen is a Welsh designer who had often felt a disconnect between her work as a furniture designer-maker and her personal values, so she decided to bring them closer together, by working with waste to create home accessories. She uses all the coffee waste from a local café and turns it into products that she sells back to them to offer alongside their drinks and snacks.

Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education, and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design, and sustainability.

I’m originally from Swansea and grew up spending time in The Gower, eating gritty sandy sandwiches during the summer and sledging in the Brecon Beacons during the winter. I spent a lot of time outdoors and was usually really into something – like my skateboard, which came with an inbuilt am/fm radio or my pogo stick, which for a while was how I got around, including taking it on coastal walks with my Familia. I was also a sea cadet for most of my childhood, so I developed a love of the ocean and camping. I suppose there wasn’t a huge amount of creativity in the traditional sense, but I was always quite good at art in school, which I then pursued in college as part of the International Baccalaureate. I took a year out before I went to university, partly to save and partly to decide what I wanted to do. I started studying interior design, but left with a degree in Fine Art. I also have a diploma in furniture design and making.

How would you describe your project/product?

Homeware is quite a broad product area, but homeware is what I make. I have focused on plant pots because, as well as it being beneficial to do some indoor gardening, plants help to purify the air in our homes. I make other products too such as soap dishes and candle holders which are intended to encourage us to switch off the lights and enjoy a soak in the tub. I really believe that living in a nice environment is important for our wellbeing and I suppose I am trying to reflect that in the products I make. As well as looking good, they are also intended to slow us down.

What inspired this project/product?

I have always been concerned about the environment. I love animals and the outdoors and I wanted to do something that wouldn’t make me feel guilty for existing. I got to a point where I felt that the things that I was doing in my personal life to be more sustainable weren’t enough. I wanted my job to be sustainable too.

What waste (and other) materials are you using, how did you select those particular materials and how do you source them?

At the moment, the waste material that I am using is used coffee grounds from By The River cafe in Glasbury, which is near to where I live and work. I targeted coffee grounds, because as far as waste is concerned, I think it’s quite a clean and acceptable material. I feel like there’s a sliding scale of acceptability when it comes to waste, that’s shifting all the time… human hair probably isn’t for everyone! I felt confident that I would be able to turn them into something with the help of Jesmonite, which is an eco- and VOC-free alternative to other traditional resin-based products. It was also something that I could do now and not at some point in the future. The products I make consist of 40% used coffee grounds and 60% Jesmonite. Continuing to experiment with other materials is an important part of my creative practice and I hope to continue to research and develop new products based on the principles of the circular economy.

What processes do the materials have to undergo to become the finished product?

I spent quite a lot of time surrounded by moldy coffee grounds before I figured out that I could cast the coffee immediately into sheets, which once set can be stored until needed. These sheets are then broken up into chips and used as a type of terrazzo.

What happens to your products at the end of their life – can they go back into the circular economy?

All of the products can go back into the circular economy and be broken down and then re-made into something else. I’m currently working on a way to ensure that products come back to me if they get broken, or even if they’re no longer wanted. They can also be repurposed in the same way a terracotta pot can be used as crocs in plant pots, or they could be recycled as building rubble.

How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?

The first prototype that actually worked felt like a huge breakthrough but, in all honesty, it was a really unappealing color! It felt like I’d achieved a lot, but I was still a long way away from having a product that I could sell.

How have people reacted to this project?

I’ve had a really great response. I launched it at the Christmas markets because I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to get some feedback and then continue to develop the products. I didn’t expect to sell much, but products were flying off the shelves. It was important to me that the products look good in their own right and that it’s just an added bonus for customers that they follow the principles of the circular economy. Buying sustainably shouldn’t have to mean a compromise on aesthetics or practicality; it’s possible to have nice things that are made from waste.

How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?

I think most people now feel that using waste as a raw material is the change that needs to happen. People are definitely changing how they choose to spend their money.

What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?

The future is certainly looking bright! I think there are endless possibilities and seeing the amazing things that people are creating is really exciting.

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Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years’ experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.