Super Local has won the Dutch Design Award for best product of 2023 with a project that creates colourful souvenirs from trash that was carried out of the Himalayas by mountain trekkers.
The Dutch design studio created two designs that could make it possible to recycle all of the trash in Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park, which is home to Mount Everest.
The first is a bag that allows people walking the mountain trails to carry trash back with them. The second is a series of mementoes made out of waste bottle caps.
"'What goes up must come down' is a law of nature that has not applied to waste in the Himalayas for a long time," the judges said. "Super Local came up with a solution that is as poetic as it is pragmatic."
The project was initiated by Nepalese non-profit Sagarmatha Next in response to concerns that an estimated 200 tonnes of waste is left behind in the mountain range each year.
The brief given to Super Local was to design "an end-to-end process" for safely removing and recycling this litter.
"The high altitude, lack of connectivity and limited recycling infrastructure make it challenging to remove waste," explained the studio, which is led by designers Pim van Baarsen and Luc van Hoeckel.
"This has resulted in more than 80 open pits where waste is burned, contaminating the soil, water and air, and threatening biodiversity."
With more than 80,000 people visiting the park every year, the designers saw an opportunity to crowdsource the process of carrying this waste out of the mountains.
Hikers are encouraged to bring back at least one pack of waste, contained within a one-kilo Carry Me Back bag.
A dedicated team is responsible for filling these bags, collecting waste from restaurants and lodges as well as open pits and bins, then taking it to a processing facility to be sorted and shredded first.
Trekkers can then clip these bags onto their backpacks, making it easy to transport them to the local airport. From here, the waste is transferred to a recycling centre in Kathmandu.
Some waste materials are easier to process than others. In particular, water bottles and aluminium cans offer more commercial reuse potential than bottle caps, which are made from HDPE (high-density polyethylene).
This led Super Local to design a collection of souvenirs that can be made from HDPE.
The collection includes faceted pebbles in three different shapes, which can be used as necklaces or key chains, and a scale model of Everest and its surrounding peaks.
These are produced with hand-operated injection moulding machines, built using the open-source blueprints of Dave Hakkens' Precious Plastic machine – a project that was first published on Dezeen back in 2013.
The caps are colour-sorted by colour before being processed. Some of the designs are more monochrome, while others feature deliberate mixes of complementary or contrasting tones.
"These colourful products use thousands of recycled bottle caps and are perfect items for tourists to remember their adventure, and hopefully their responsibility to the environment, even as they return home," said the designers.
Super Local has become a specialist in socially conscious design. Other projects include the Care Collection, a line of affordable hospital equipment, and Bottle Up, a range of terrazzo products made by Zanzibari craftspeople.
From the Himalayas is one of the studio's biggest projects to date.
Following a successful pilot version of the Carry Me Back scheme in 2019, the programme was launched across the region in spring 2022.
The project is expected to make a significant impact on the local ecosystem. According to Super Local, the response has been hugely positive.
"Locals and visitors alike have responded enthusiastically to the Carry Me Back programme, with some people carrying up to 14 kilos of waste on their way," said the designers.
The photography is by Super Local.