By Somluck Srimalee
Associate Professor Dr Singh Intrachooto, winner of the Silpathorn 2019 Award in design, recalled his dismay at the opening talk of his exhibition “Upcycling Design Journey Targeting Sustainability” at Bangkok’s Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre.
Singh is among seven artists named as this year’s Silpathorn awardees by the Culture Ministry in different categories.
The others are Natee Utarit in the visual arts, Assistant Professor Boonserm Premthada in architecture, Worapoj Panpong in literature, Anan Nakkong in music, Damkeng Thitapiyasak in performing arts and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom in movies and motion media.
Singh said he first became interested in “upcycling” waste to give it new value a few years after he graduated in design technology and architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to Thailand.
“We saw over 30 percent of construction waste sent to landfills. At construction sites, a lot of it got buried at the property, polluting the ground. It inspired me to look for ways to make construction waste reusable.”
His success since then has seen waste from construction sites, manufacturing and households – everything from junk plastic to egg shells – turned into furniture, construction materials and much more.
“Now I’m being honoured for this, but it wasn’t smooth sailing,” he said. “I had to sail through a lot of wind and waves.”
Not even his family or friends understood so they could not really be very supportive, some thought he was wasting his time and talents on upcycling. He considered giving up, but decided to conduct some tests first, and if they failed, he’d abandon the effort.
“If I didn’t at least try, it would still be bothering me. I experimented with upcycling agricultural waste first, turning it into raw construction materials such as fibreboard and artificial stone.”
But a lot of end-users, such as construction firms and property firms, weren’t interested in using these materials. “I’d failed to properly promote the idea of upcycling.”
Then Singh found a way to blend science and creative design. The result was a line of furniture sold under the Osisu brand, a success in both domestic sales and exports when it was unveiled in 2006.
It also earned Singh a green light to research and develop more products from waste at his “Scrap Lab” at Kasetsart University, where he’s in charge of the Creative Centre for Eco-design.
He next had to secure more funding to support green innovation center on Kasetsart University Campus to benefit the environment and industry, including waste management and design.
Most of the people and agencies he approached, though, “don’t believe it’s necessary nor possible”, and again it was a rough time.
Funding came in 2016 from Magnolia Quality Development Corp (MQDC) to set up the Research & Innovation for Sustainability Centre (RISC) to serve the public.
“It’s taken time, but I was determined and learning all the time, and I believed in my sustainability commitments,” Singh said. “I believed it would eventually be welcome.”
He told The Nation separately that his winning the Silpathorn Award ought to inspire designers to seek ways to use “waste” that are not actually waste or scraps in their projects.
“I hope the idea of reducing waste under the concept of ‘upcycle, recycle, reuse’ will gain more acceptance as part of the circular economy. I expect the concept to be applied in every industry, such as fashion, product design, manufacturing, medical and more.
“We are all citizens of the world and our responsibility is to help make life sustainable for future generations, not just our own.”