In a city that produces 13,000 tons of solid waste every day, upcycling product designer Kevin Cheung is looking for creative solutions to reusing waste material, and changing the mindset of city people around the world.
Tucked behind Wanchai’s historic Blue House, a shaded area on the ground floor leads to a quiet, two storey building called the Yellow House, where product designer Kevin Cheung has established his studio – it’s a bright and airy space to tinker, showcase, dream and live.
Entering Cheung’s studio, you get the idea that this place is not just another flat – in fact, it’s an extension of all that Cheung does as an upcycling product designer: to live life intentionally, and to find the story in everything. Every fixture and piece of furniture is handmade, constructed entirely of upcycled materials.
“I was invited to live here and everyone who lives here contributes something to the community,” Cheung explains. The studio, which he has converted into a workspace loft, is part of the Blue House heritage conservation programme which preserves historical buildings by renovating them to be inhabited by like-minded individuals who live together collaboratively.
Interestingly what originally led Cheung to live at the Blue House was a sense of guilt.
In 2009, Cheung graduated with a degree in product design from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, entering the workforce as a designer for a battery company.
“We designed a lot of e-stuff which turned into e-waste, super toxic stuff, and I worked there for a year and felt like the whole industry is doing the same thing,” Cheung recalls. “We tried to make a lot of money out of selling stuff people don’t need. [That didn’t] really go in line with the product designer I think I was meant to be.”
Disillusioned, he left the industry and began building things with waste materials.
Reinventing used PET bottles into wind chimes, deconstructing rice cookers into bicycle bells and refurbishing discarded bicycle rims into elegant lighting, Cheung’s ingenious work creatively repurposes waste material – or as he sees it, “materials in the wrong place at the wrong time” – into new, functional products, catching the attention of media, brands and corporations. Today he has been covered by dozens of publications, and his designs have led to collaborations with brands like Hermes, and corporations like Citibank and DBS.
His most famous product and the one that kickstarted his upcycling designer journey is the Boombottle, a portable speaker constructed from an empty five liter bottle that used to hold printing ink. The speaker, which also features a small light and durable straps for easy carrying, cleverly utilises upcycled felt carpet fabric from HKTDC. Each speaker is assembled by St James’s Settlement Workshop, which provides employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
When it comes to design perspective, Cheung says, “The shape of the bottle is actually perfect for holding and generating sound.” He’s applied this same logic to other items like outdated wallpaper samples, which led him to develop his own line of wallpaper wallets. “Each wallet is different since every page of the sample booklet has a unique color and texture,” reads the product description on Cheung’s website. An added bonus? They’re waterproof too.
As Cheung’s upcycled product line has expanded, he’s also been tapped for large-scale installations as well as educational workshops to teach recycling and sustainability principles in the classroom.
Wanting to take the social aspect of his work a step further, a few years ago he received funding to travel to the Japanese island of Shikoku, where he spent time in the small village of Kamikatsu which is renown for its low-waste practices where residents separate their waste into 45 different categories.
“At that time, I had been talking about how to be zero-waste, reduce waste or stop sending to landfills, but I didn’t really know how to involve that in daily life, it was just part of my design [work].” Cheung recalls how Kamikatsu visitors are required to read a manual about the village’s waste practices before arriving.
“I was there to learn how they motivate a whole village to have a recycling rate of up to 80%.” Through his time there, putting on workshops and learning from the residents, he understood that a successful recycling system has to involve everyone in the community.
“This means not just people working in the [recycling] station, but everyone living in the neighbourhood needs to know the system and be dedicated to it. And that’s what’s missing in Hong Kong,” he says. “Usually we think things go into the bin, and then it’s someone else’s responsibility. But that doesn’t work.”
Returning to Hong Kong, Cheung was motivated to live in a place where he could get to know his neighbours. The Blue House ticked all the boxes.
When Cheung first started the community recycling programme, he got his neighbours to save a week’s worth of waste. Together, the Yellow House residents spread their rubbish across the communal front yard. “We did a waste audit,” Cheung explains, “we tried to figure out how much paper waste, metal, [etc.] so we could estimate how much a month we were collecting, and then look for a dedicated recycler to come and pick it up so we don’t go to the three colour bins which don’t actually work that well.”
“City people tend to not have the time or effort to deal with materials they don’t see any value in,” he says. “So I really hope to see a future world where people see these kinds of materials as more than their economic value. As long as we do that, we won’t do as much damage to the world.” For Cheung, this is why upcycling is more than just about repurposing waste – when you see an object used in a different, yet functional way, you begin to think differently about it and its value. Likewise, for companies and brands, it’s a chance to do something fun and unexpected.
“I see upcycling as a powerful tool to tell a good story,” Cheung says. He notices a unique opportunity when working with large companies, especially during the holidays. “For example, during Christmas, you can always hire somebody to print some stickers or buy some fancy decorations but it doesn’t really relate to the company or what they do. But when those materials come from the company, or are collected by the colleagues themselves, that’s a whole different story – they get involved. The sense of involvement and creating something beautiful is something everybody loves.” This thinking is what led Cheung to build nutcrackers out of paper clips and filing folders with Citibank, and Christmas trees out of recycled office paper for DBS.
The tactile nature of building is just as integral to the process as the upcycling itself – for Cheung, having to touch and interact with the materials to understand their capacity, shape, and form is a way to get others involved.
“When we do upcycling, we try not to focus on how much waste we are reducing or that we are doing so much good for the world,” Cheung says, “but we think about the story. As long as people are willing to take the first step, they will find the fun in it. Whether it’s working on a vintage cupboard or getting to know your neighbour because they also recycle. The key is to find a good story – when you have that, I think people will naturally be interested. People are very important to this process.”
Learn more about Kevin Cheung at kevin-cheung.com
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