How might we transform waste material into valuable new products?

Each year the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) decommissions boats, jackets, and other equipment that no longer meet the necessary standards for active use. The performance material used in these products are typically composite blends or completely synthetic making them difficult to separate and recycle.

While studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA), fellow designer Joseph Rouse and myself, initiated a relationship with the RNLI to explore potential opportunities for equipment that would otherwise be destined for landfill or incineration. Working with several members of the RNLI’s innovation team, we developed, led, and participated in design workshops that were offered to the wider RCA student community.


Together we created concepts for new products, social impact initiatives, and explored opportunities in the circular economy. For a cross-disciplinary week of collaboration at RCA, organized ideation exercises, co-led a group of 13 students and we descended upon a decommissioned boat sent to us from the RNLI like design vultures.

After analyzing our material inventory, ideas emerged including bags, splash guards, water distillers, swimming aids, and footwear. Each idea harvested represents an entire category of products that requires its own product development process. While the boat mostly consisted of hypalon (a synthetic rubber), as we measured, unscrewed, and sliced the boat into its constituent parts, we also catalogued a range of materials including plywood, fiberglass, foam, and aluminium.

To generate a range of ideas we created a design brief that that encouraged participants in the workshop to explore the properties of harvested materials by experimenting with scale, digital fabrication, and removable fixings such as thread or fasteners.

During the course of the workshop, designers were encouraged to consider how their designs might be used to promote the RNLI’s mission of saving lives at sea, and explore potential applications for the harvested material in other industries such as a substitute for animal leather.

Currently selected product ideas are being evaluated by the RNLI for their retail and e-commerce store.