Art Students Create MDF Alternative from Potato Peelings

Published online: Feb 20, 2018 Articles
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Source: Kingston University

Two Kingston University (UK) graduates have created an environmentally friendly, sustainable and biodegradable alternative to MDF, produced from potato peelings. Graphic design graduates Rob Nicol and Rowan Minkley are the team behind Chip[s] Board, a potato-based product turning food waste material from restaurants into a robust, ready-to-use chipboard-like sheet.

The environmentally friendly product is strong enough to construct temporary structures designed to last more than a month.

“We have some samples that are over a year old now. It lasts as a material without degrading,” says Minkley. “We could build a product with a lifespan of three to five years or provide the stands, stalls and even some temporary accommodation for a summer festival. We want to reduce the amount of materials that are used only once and then chucked in a skip. Chip[s] Board is designed to break down quickly in an industrial compost.”

While the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley worked from their garages, it is the kitchens and Kingston School of Art studios of the southwest London suburbs that have birthed Chip[s] Board. The product started life as a final-year project, with the students investigating bio-materials. The pair extracted starch from potatoes in a successful attempt to make potato plastic. This left them with a large amount of peelings with which they were keen to experiment and minimize any residual waste.

The “eureka!” moment arrived when they realized that once baked for an extended period, the mulch produced from the potato waste became a solid form that held its shape. However, this process didn’t make them the most popular people in Kingston.

“Initially, we were looking into making biodegradable plant pots,” says 23-year-old Minkley. “We were keeping giant bags of potatoes in the back garden and using industrial blenders to prepare the mulch for baking.”

“The smell is quite unique; our housemates didn’t really like us for a couple of months,” says 23-year-old Nicol. “We sorted the potato peelings at home and then cycled to the university to press and hang them. If we were lucky, someone would give us a lift or we’d get a taxi to the restaurant so we could process the peelings. Then back to university to take them to the workshops and turn them into products. It was all a bit ad-hoc, but very fun—with plenty of bemused taxi drivers.”

Five kilograms of potato peelings produce 1 kilogram of Chip[s] Board, meaning a lot of potato peelings were needed in the development process. One of the next steps is to find a regular, large-scale source of peelings.

“We’re looking to work with companies like McCain or Lamb Weston—brands that are used in restaurants and at home. If we can collect all of their waste, we can turn it into something of high value,” says Nicol.

The product was developed with assistance from Kingston School of Art’s Incubator program, led by graphic design lecturer Zoe Bather with support from the design school’s director of enterprise, Kieran O’Connor. The initiative gives final-year graphic design students the opportunity to expand upon their entrepreneurial ideas with access to industry expertise.

“The program is guided by the students,” says Bather. “Using my connections as a graphic designer, we invited a small panel of industry experts to give the students feedback and the chance to network. It was a fantastic opportunity and hugely motivational for them to deliver a pitch.”

On the surface, Chip[s] Board may not seem like the average graphic design project; however, Bather says the product also needed their more traditional skills.

“Chip[s] Board merges product design and material invention, but they also needed to employ a lot of core graphic design skills,” she says. “They have created a brand and a website, they are marketing their product while telling an audience their story—all things integral to graphic design and communication.”

Having shared their idea at the University’s Manufactory event, the duo currently has a residency at Makerversity, a creative workspace for designers and entrepreneurs based at London’s Somerset House, and are focused on making the product a success.

“It would be amazing to see Chip[s] Board replace MDF at universities and schools,” says Minkley. “We have also discussed the possibility of producing refugee emergency housing using Chip[s] Board. A temporary village could be constructed quickly and cheaply while drastically cutting down on the waste materials normally left behind. We want this product to make a positive impact on the world and inspire more young people to find creative solutions to world issues.”