Like many countries, Thailand has an issue with waste. From buildings, to manufacturing and agriculture, to consumer goods and tourism leftovers, mountains of garbage go to landfill each year. Agriculture alone in Thailand churns out 58,190,000 tons of refuse annually (Land Development Department, Government of Thailand). Think about that the next time you frolic on a Thai beach.
Throughput of industrial system today, from source to end consumer, ends up in landfills or incinerator. For every truckload of product with lasting value, 32 truckloads of waste are produced. On a finite planet, it doesn’t take a genius to realize this sort of system is totally unsustainable.
Singh Intrachooto is an unlikely hero in this pile of waste. Closing the loop on society’s byproducts has become Singh’s claim to fame. On one sunny afternoon just outside Bangkok, on the campus of Kasetsart University, we caught up with Singh for an intimate look at his work.
Taking us around his self-titled “Scrap Lab”, Singh points out some of the latest and greatest materials sent his way. “I get mountains of stuff sent to me from industry all the time,” he says.
Scrap Lab is the playground for Singh and his students. He has been a professor at Kasetsart since 2003. The lab, which started in 2007 with the help of the university and funding from Siam Commercial Bank, has every conceivable material—metal, plastic, wood, fabric, wires, glass, threads, chips, packaging, leather and several amorpheous blobs of polyethelene. “We haven’t quite figured out what to do with those one yet. They just arrived last week,” he says with a slightly overwhelmed grin.
Originally trained in Seattle as an architect and construction manager, Singh went on to study his Masters in Aachen. He then bounced back to Washington where he worked professionally as an architect for several years. “I got bored with the business as usual mentality with little concern for the environment at the time,” he says. “It just didn’t suit me.”
He decided to leave architecture and pursue a PhD in building technology at MIT. Singh’s goal was to get innovative techniques and technology into building applications and to make it practical for use on the ground. After researching constantly for several years, he finished his work. A teaching stint in Boston followed, before he finally returned to his native Thailand.
Once again he found himself working as an architect and facing the problem of waste, even from projects that were supposed to be “green”.
“My colleagues and I started discussing about using materials efficiently and how construction debris could become our resources. I couldn’t face my students and clients and talk to them about green projects with that situation continuing. Something had to be done. I didn’t feel I was acting genuinely,” Singh says.
He began tinkering different waste streams and creating new products. He paid construction workers to separate materials, which piled up very quickly, giving him a lot to work with. For each building project, he started out by making furniture that could be used back in the same project. The designs were well favored, and one of the developers became so keen, she became his future business partner.
Notoriety followed that particular project, and with the help of his new partner, Singh established a design studio called Osisu to continue to produce new products from the waste streams of different industries.
In a flurry of activity, one thing led to another. Pipes became park benches, fabric became lamps, plastic chips became tables. After a while, his work got increasing attention. Buyers were keen for his products as far away as Europe and the U.S. “Even the Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn came out to our exhibition to have a look and see what we were doing,” he says. A slew of accolades followed: Thailand’s Emergent Designer of the Year Award, Elle Décor’s Designer of the Year as well as Top Environmentalist 2008 Award from Thailand’s Department of Environment
Recently, the projects have gotten more and more elaborate. “We can now make shelving out of shredded Tetra-pack containers,” he says. “People send us stuff all the time. We’re currently trying to figure out what to do with foil snack packages. It’s a great material—waterproof, heat resistant, quite durable,” he says with an ingenious look in his eye. You know he’ll crack it sooner or later.
Singh has spoken publicly on several occasions on how design so far has been all about product, and not about process. There is immense value to be gained by taking a step back, looking at the process, how things are made, and the true importance of materials. As many astute industrial designers have pointed out, there is a simple equation to keep in mind: waste = money.
Singh hands me a wallet made from four layers of heat-pressed wrapping paper, gorgeously simple, and apparently water resistant. “That’s your take-away,” he laughs. Just my luck, I needed a new wallet.
With all the success Singh has had with Osisu, people often approach him about other ventures and avenues to explore. “In my view, we have problems. Everyone wants to do something, but thinking about it other people’s professions,” he says.
“I hear people say ‘oh architecture needs to be this’ or ‘banking needs to be that’. What needs to happen is people need to start with their own profession. It’s not just about engineering, or energy, or design. Be confident that your profession, no matter what it is, has some of the answers too,” he says.
Everyone has a part to play, and increasingly for Singh, he is trying to get others involved. He is training up his design students to give public talks to help promote the work and techniques that have been developed.
He also travels at least once a month, both around Thailand to investigate new materials, and also overseas to design exhibitions. “I just got back from Copenhagen. I was working with a team of people from around the world making recommendations to the United Nations on sustainable design strategies in the cultural sector,” Singh says.
With such a chock full schedule, there is never a dull moment for this extremely amicable designer. “The hardest thing for me now between the teaching and the business is to focus time on developing new ways to use materials,” he says.
“Osisu has nearly zero inventory— it is a studio with a design team. We can basically go out and tap different waste streams when we get orders or make new products,” says Singh. “We need to keep going with our work.”
Even with the time constraints, Singh has many new business ideas in mind. From eco-real estate, to eco-banking, and snacks made from agriculture fibers, he could be busy for several lifetimes to come.
With the Thai government coming around, and with the self-sufficiency outlook encouraged by the King, hopefully the future is a bright one. With his university classes routinely full, he is certainly in bright company.
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Photos courtesy of Singh Intrachooto