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Illuminating ideas about plastic waste: an interview with Jessica Mae Studio

Jessica Mae, who runs her own design studio, talked to business writer Huw Sayer about redefining how people see plastic waste and the free-to-join Upcycle Your Waste project for SMEs run by the Norwich BID.

Jessica is rapidly gaining a reputation as the creator of beautiful lamps made from upcycled plastic, but her lightbulb moment came about seven years ago, when she was studying for an Art Foundation course at Stamford College in Lincolnshire. “We were driving past a landfill and I saw litter from it spewing onto a roadside verge. It suddenly dawned on me how ridiculous it was that we were simply digging holes in which to bury our rubbish, rather than doing something useful with it.”  

This prompted her to start investigating how we dispose of our rubbish. “It was while Googling for more information that I came across reports of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is a huge vortex of slowly degrading rubbish, mainly small particles of plastic, that people have dumped into our rivers and oceans. It is so far away from most land that no one takes responsibility for it, yet it is killing marine wildlife.”

Jessica felt inspired to try to reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment. “I had studied art and design at sixth form, specialising in fashion and textiles, and was interested in sustainable design. I decided to see if I could treat waste plastic like just another material and do something artistic with it at college.

Rubbish ideas start to blossom

“I used to go to college with bags of plastic waste that I’d gathered from family and friends, I even collected ‘disposable’ plastic plates, glasses and cutlery from the restaurant where I worked part-time. This was the sort of rubbish people throw away every day without thinking. My tutors thought I was a bit crazy, but my Mum got it because she has always been into recycling and upcycling.

“I didn’t know what was possible at the time, so I just started experimenting, trying to reinvent the plastic as part of my Art Foundation course. My ambition was to transform it into something that was beautiful and would fit into nature. That’s when I came up with my first idea of creating artificial flowers and other nature inspired sculptures, which I went on to exhibit at the beautiful Barnsdale Gardens in Rutland.”

After completing her foundation course, Jessica won a place at Norwich University of the Arts to study textile design. Initially, she thought she wanted to be a print designer and work with companies like Liberty.  The floral sculptures remained just a hobby at that stage – although she found that she could sell them.

“I was walking past the Norwich Art Shop on Upper St Giles when I saw that they were offering to rent small spaces to artists where you could exhibit your work. They take a small commission on any sales and you help in the shop once or twice a month, but it is a great way for a young artist to get noticed and to find out what people want to buy. I still sell some of my work there now – as well as at Todd Designs on St Augustine’s Street, which specialises in selling recycled interiors pieces made by local designers and artists.”

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Inspiration and ambition

Jessica’s time at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) transformed her career ambitions. “I realised that I loved making things with my hands and was still passionate about transforming waste into beautiful products. The NUA course inspires you to learn from traditional crafts but also to really think creatively about different techniques for manipulating and colouring textiles and fabrics. The workshops were amazing too with all the kit you needed to experiment – and they were open 9am to 9pm so you could really immerse yourself in the process.”

“I was still collecting waste household plastic so I started experimenting on that – treating the different types of plastic like fabric to see how they would respond: dying, heat pressing, soldering and stitching it together, heat transfer printing on it (a method used for colouring synthetic material like polyester). I set up big boards on which I compared techniques to see which worked best. Rather than having a big blank canvas, this approach forces you to work within the limitations of the material in front of you.

“The different shapes, colours and conditions of the plastic restrict what you can do but that helps you to focus your creativity. I had no preconceived ideas, I was just looking for inspiration and that’s when I discovered that plastic lends itself to lighting. Milk bottles particularly took to colouring when you dyed them but remained see through, so I knew they would diffuse light nicely.

“That’s when I started developing the idea of designing lamps that were both practical and beautiful, and once again looked to nature for inspiration. The shapes of the lamps, including the curved brass stems, come from real flowers and plants that I have seen and drawn but the lines and patterns on the petals are also art deco inspired. Because the plastic was too smooth to stick things to, I decided to stitch these lines into the plastic using a technique I’d learnt working with textiles, which gives them an interesting texture.”

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How to accidentally start a business

The NUA degree show is one of the annual highlights of the art scene in Norwich. Students not only get to exhibit their creations (with a price tag on them) but can also make items specifically for the university shop. Jessica’s work proved to be incredibly popular: she sold everything she had made for the shop as well as getting orders for the dozen lamps she had displayed in the show. That’s when she decided to set up a website and social media accounts to promote and sell her work.

“I hadn’t intended to start a business,” she explains, “I was just responding to customer demand for my designs, but I’m delighted at how well it is going.” She currently works part time at the Access Creative College in Norwich, teaching traditional art and digital painting as part of the games design course. She also runs her own business from home and is in the process of kitting out a studio at the bottom of her garden.

Jessica is now ambitious to grow the business and is already developing new products and experimenting with ideas. “I’m keen to help people who are interested in working with upcycled materials, even if only as a hobby.  There’s a growing interest within the crafting movement in environmentally friendly arts and I’d like to do more to encourage that.

“I want to change people’s perceptions of plastic from something that is cheap and discardable to something that is valuable and worth keeping. That means steering away from traditional ideas of recycled products, which can often look a bit dull and second hand. My work must be aesthetically pleasing, and look as good as new, so it appeals to people who want something beautiful, a talking point for their home, as well as those looking for eco-friendly products.”

How can you be a part of the Upcycling revolution?

Jessica’s work illustrates how we have probably created more plastic than we will ever need and now just need to learn how stop it going to waste. As Jessica explains, “businesses need to try to make every product as sustainable as possible and so prevent the waste polluting the environment. That means thinking about how you reclaim, recycle and upcycle every component and make it easy for customers to do the same.

“It’s fantastic that the Norwich BID is now running this Upcycle Your Waste project for small businesses in the Greater Norwich area. There’s a strong business case for developing a fully circular economy that meets the growing consumer demand for ethically and sustainably produced goods. It’s not just good for the environment,” she concludes, “it can be profitable too.”

Help be part of the upcycling revolution

Norwich BID wants to help Norfolk businesses embrace this opportunity, which is why we are running the Upcycle Your Waste project in the Greater Norwich area. We can analyse your waste and identify ways that partner organisations can upcycle it into valuable new products, while reducing pollution. We have been conducting research over the last year and are now developing business cases.

We aim to start piloting several possible solutions later in 2021. You can read all about the project, and find out how your business can get involved, on our website, or join our StartUpCycle launch event with Sync the City.

Find out more Upcycle Your Waste

Attend our Sync the City StartUpcycle launch event. 

Visit Jessica Mae Studio's shop.

Read the previous interview in our Upcycle Your Waste series, with Joe Hill, co-founder of One Planet Pizza.

Read the interview with George Bailey, Co-founder of Coral Eyewear, shares how a passion for the environment inspired his business.