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SESAME or when the generator of waste becomes its prime beneficiary

Interview with Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte and Olivier Gilson

2 December 2019
© mikomikostudio

On 1 July 2016, the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company (STIB) removed its 3,700 orange ticket validation machines, replacing them with red MOBIB readers. Originally destined simply for recycling, 1,500 of these machines have now found a new lease of life. 
The machines were once used to validate access to public transport. In their reconditioned form, they are geared towards access to the home, having been repurposed as lock boxes going by the name of SESAME. Wooden plates have replaced the printed circuit boards and there are rubber bands for post or photos. 

We take a look back at the project with its designer, Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte  and Olivier Gilson, Director of MAD Lab.

Why this box? To put things in their proper context, how did the connection between STIB, their partners and you come about?

Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte - The first step was when STIB removed its ticket validation machines in 2016 and replaced them with a new system. It approached Bruxelles Propreté (the street cleaning and waste disposal company for the Brussels Capital Region - Ed.), to begin recycling these3,700boxes. The initial phase of implementation was to recover the insides of the boxes, with the company CF2D doing the work of dismantling; the motors were reused by the Polytechnic Faculty of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). Anyway, the study conducted by CF2D identified the potential of the boxes in terms of electronic components, plastics and material that could be reused and put back into a conventional circuit board.

Olivier Gilson - Yes, when we took over the project, some work had already been done on it, and it's worth pointing out that the inside of this box was already in the process of being recovered. They came to see us primarily to work on the empty box. Visions differed. There was the vision of the designer, which focused on the purpose and functions that the item could fulfil. Then there was the vision of the MAD Lab, which was to emphasise the process of repurposing these boxes, to yield information in order to communicate on ecodesign, its challenges and its role in the recovery of waste. Beyond form and beyond a logic of upcycling that seems obvious, this is an often essential phase in raising awareness, among MAD Lab partners, of what the added value of ecodesignactually is.

How did this box end up on your desk?

OG - What happened is that we had been identified as a laboratory with design potential that looks to sustainable and social dynamics. But, generally speaking, the people we work with still have a fairly conventional vision of what design can offer. They wanted us to help them repurpose these boxes, and we decided that it was Pierre-Emmanuel we wanted to work with. In fact, as a result of the Handymadeproject that he had completed along with the sheltered workshop L’Ouvroir, we felt it made sense to have another go, now that the process between Pierre-Emmanuel, L’Ouvroir and the MAD Lab had been proven.

Who is the project leader?

OG - STIB and Recy-k.

PEVDP -  STIB gave the source to Bruxelles-Propreté, which contacted Recy-k to stockpile it. They then contacted the MAD Lab to propose the project to it. This led to the two paths: the lock box – which emerged quite quickly – and one other, which was furniture for the Simonis metro station.

OG - What’s interesting about this approach is that, with the furniture, we tried to inspire further discussion about making a loop; the waste generated by the user thus becoming the raw material for the realisation of a project of which it would become the prime beneficiary.

What happened next?

OG - At first, we agreed that we would go further with this approach, by proposing a product/waste loop for something that STIB needed, namely furniture for the metro stations. We backtracked, putting forward what Pierre-Emmanuel had visualised in the first place, and advancing step by step. We needed to think in terms of sound practice, i.e. starting from scratch to come up with something more considered in the future. People want to be reassured first, before they can envisage uses that require more complex commitments. Our responsibility is to ask the question for each project: how do we do our utmost to make people understand the relevance of the approach and, above all, show that it has a purpose and a genuine added value for our contacts and partners?

At a global level, what kind of potential are we talking about?

OG -  In time, these boxes will be removed from the various towns and cities where they are still in use, and that’s where the source comes from. There’s a chance for long-term discussion here.  The dream would be to look after the whole sector around the world via good practice emanating from Brussels. While it’s true that these boxes have been dismantled in Brussels, this may not be the case in other towns and cities where they are in use.

PEVDP - But that means that they are becoming obsolete items. They no longer meet the criteria of digitisation. In Belgium, they can be found in Brussels, obviously, and in Flanders (used by [public transport company] De Lijn, where they are yellow). There aren’t any left in Wallonia: those boxes have already been removed. They were green. They are in Brazil, in Campinas and in other places. You can also find them in four cities in Argentina; in Ankara, Turkey; in Sydney, Australia; in Gothenburg, Sweden and in Klagenfurt, Austria.

There is real potential, then?

PEVDP - What might be interesting is to export a model. I don’t want exclusivity on the design; quite the opposite. As with Handymade, the project has evolved and other designers are taking ownership. What I find interesting is the snowball effect. STIB is now looking for new avenues. It also has a centre that allows it to recover and analyse different sources. In this regard, further research and development already exists for new products, like the recovery of leathers from damaged metro seats, which are transformed and reused to make card holders.

So, apart from those that have been scrapped, how many have been transformed?

PEVDP - We’re talking about 1,500 items currently, but the transformation is ongoing. Ultimately, the most sustainable solution is to turn them into furniture?

OG - The sensible thing is to identify our biggest customers, and often, in fact, they are the generators of waste. The aim is to raise their awareness of the fact that, using these sources, they can become the sponsors of something else. That’s the logic. Whether it’s furniture or something else entirely, as long as it makes sense for the customer. In this case, furniture for metro stations makes sense.

PEVDP - There were all sorts of things this waste could have been used for. The reason I pursued this lock box functionality is because, after trialsof smelting and crushing, I wanted to preservethe visual aspect of the item in its most iconic form. Several people told me they held affection for this box, so I included that in my considerations. I played on that, keeping its form and function. This item retains its aspect of transition and its roots in the public domain, except it is being moved to the private domain. You no longer mark your passage with a ticket, but with keys. The item made sense. But there are a thousand other possibilities. A different designer would have made a different product.

You identified a potential with these boxes. You decided to transform them and, with all the different paths available, you took the opportunity to make 3,700 lock boxes, making them as sustainable as possible. You also tried to sell the project of making furniture out of them.

PEVDP - They were, in fact, two parallel paths. It’s not that one path is better than another. For me, furniture is not the best solution for the current project.

OG - What's interesting in furniture is that your scope is much wider. If you make furniture for a metro station, you are responding to more needs. Added to which, it’s furniture for the community. In terms of thinking, it’s much more interesting to show that you can make benches for the community. Critical mass is very important.

Is the MAD Lab making sure that you stay on track?

OG - The people you work with need to understand what you can teach them in terms of sound practices. At the beginning, we were just designers who were going to make some “nifty” thing for STIB, to emphasise the fact that it was committed to recycling. Our job is to put forward a much more ambitious vision, to show what it’s possible to do and to manage to lead them towards a much more committed logic.

We potentially have 3,700 lock boxes that are going to inundate the Brussels Capital Region. This might seem an odd question, but what do you estimate the life of this second mounting to be?

PEVDP -  It’s quite hard to say. Given the composition, materials and addition of materials in the item, it could last 20-30 years. We could easily double its life.

OG - All we've done is extend the life of the waste. We’re not making an item disappear. This waste has a value, and we have added the emotional value of a new brand. 

You’re taking the item back to its beginnings. The message for STIB is all the more powerful: they are re-injecting waste into their own system by making something else out of it.

OG - Throughout this joint effort, we have been trying to work towards an exemplary approach. Today, we have taken a slight step backwards, but maybe they’ll come back to us with the perfect opportunity for making furniture. There will be enough quantity and we’re good to go. In terms of production, furniture is much more complicated to create, as well. This whole technical, technological, skills and sustainability framework needs thinking about. All these processes are very lengthy. It could almost be “design fiction”. But this fiction is very close to reality and you need to bear in mind that very few elements are needed to transition from one to the other, and that it’s mainly a matter of will on the part of all the parties involved in the project. In this particular case, STIB mainly wanted a tangible recovery project that it could showcase without delay.

If you have one regret with regard to this project, what would it be?

PEVDP - It’s not really a regret, but the biggest difficulty with the project has been to make others understand and, to some extent, educate them in a new practice. It’s been a long educational effort, and it’s still ongoing.

OG - It's sometimes down to a lack of understanding from our partners. You need to tread gently, because if you have a vision that is too ambitious, you lose yourself and you lose them. Generally, our contacts lack knowledge of the subject. They want to do something sustainable, but aren't ready to think outside the box. But that’s where the real opportunity lies: the opportunity of explaining what the transition towards greater sustainability really means.

Are you in a position to anticipate potential opportunities for future waste from STIB? Are you willing to take a stance on that and not ultimately wait for the initiative to come from the sponsor, in this case STIB?

OG - The question that needs to be answered is, who is the contact? Certain people understand our vision, but there is an administrative and operational structure that can have a bearing on the process. We need to find good contacts and show them this exemplary approach so that we can shake things up and experiment with more sustainable directions via sound practices. That’s very important. Our responsibility to the community is expressed by this perseverance.

Interview by Fabian Jean Villanueva, Creative Director MAD Studio 

Project visual identity Bureau Wolewinksi 

The price of SESAME boxes is 84€.


STIB STORE - Metro Rogier
Place Charles Rogier
1210 Saint-Josse-ten-Noode

Rue Bodeghem 78
1000 Brussels

Fabriekstraat 15/19
1930 Zaventem

Chaussée de Charleroi 123
1060 Brussels

ADAM - Brussels Design Museum 
Place de Belgique 1
1020 Laeken 

Rue Rouppe 1
1000 Brussels