Walking down the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, trash pickers called catadores spend each day looking for cans, bottles, and anything else of value. Thanks to them, Brazil recycles more cans than any other country in the world. But it’s a rough way to make a living, which inspired two designers to ask a question: What if the catadores could turn trash into something new to sell?
In Can City, designers from Studio Swine prototyped a mobile foundry that recycles cans into new furniture. Free waste vegetable oil from local cafes powers a furnace that melts down the old cans. Then the melted aluminum is poured into a simple mold. In their trial run of the foundry, the designers forged stools for the restaurant that had given them the oil.
"We were really inspired by the vernacular design and everyday resourcefulness you see on the streets of the city," says Alex Groves, one of the designers from Studio Swine.
Even the shape of each stool was taken from the street. The designers walked around picking up things like a palm frond, a brick, and a hub cap that could be cast into the seat of the furniture.
The stools aren't meant to be perfectly formed, since the designers think that individual quirks are an important part of the project. "Unlike conventional aluminum furniture they’re each unique and expressive," the designers write. "Manufactured on the spot, they transform ephemeral street materials into metal objects, providing a portrait of the street."
Eventually, they imagine a city where someone could go to the street and have something cast on demand just as easily as they could go to the store. "We wanted to tap into this existing street culture—to turn a public space into a manufacturing line," Grove says.
Right now, one mobile foundry is up and running at a catadore collection point in São Paulo. The designers hope to work with a community co-op to create more foundries and train more trash collectors to use them. They also hope to keep adding examples of different products that can be made.
"We envisage anything from souvenirs for the upcoming World Cup to architectural elements, roof brackets—the possibilities are really endless," Groves says.