26 March 2021
Upcycling Cassette Tapes: a Masterclass in Art and Sustainability from Singapore
[10-15 minute read]
It was acceptable in the 80s.
If you're old enough to remember cassette tapes then there's no doubt you'll recall the nostalgic moments of rewinding, recording, compiling mix-tapes and all of the associated sub-culture quirks that peaked in the 1980s. This is when music was presented in a physical format - and just like any other physical product - requires some consideration with its disposal.
Cassettes were ultimately phased out by the 2000s due to the incoming (and short-lived) Compact Discs, and then later on by the complete domination of digital music. However, to Jessica "JJ" Chuan, the Malaysia-born, Singapore-based founder of Rehyphen, cassette tapes provided a valuable material that will be transformed into something totally different.
Why is this relevant to surfing?
Cassette tapes are an item that's essentially made from non-renewable materials, as are most modern, high-performance surfboards. Cassettes and surfboards are very difficult to recycle due to the various interlocking parts and materials; to recycle a surfboard would involve separating the resin and fibreglass outer shell and then (if it's EPS foam) you could recycle the inner foam, but that rarely happens. Both products have very few, if any, easily accessible public facilities to recycle them back into new products - or at the very least - to dispose of them in a controlled environment.
Is it realistic to wonder if surfboards (in their current format of foam, fibreglass and resin) can be transformed into art or another totally different product, bearing in mind there's no clear second life for them at present. Just for a moment, have a think about all of the surfboards currently in circulation, and how many of those have been turned into something useful once finished with. Not many, we suspect.
Beyond the surfing world, there are countless exciting developments and transferable examples from other industries, so here we are; a case study from Singapore to learn from the hugely talented (and patient) JJ Chuan and her team at Rehyphen.
What is MusicCloth®
MusicCloth ® is an innovative up-cycled material made of discarded cassette tapes and video tapes. The tapes consist of polyester film with metallic coatings, which would otherwise be considered a waste material. The material is woven in a basket weave pattern, which allows stability and durability.
Rehyphen® pioneer an up-cycling initiative whereby we collect discarded cassette tapes from local and weave them into a piece of MusicCloth® as an effort to reduce and eliminate e-waste, while giving the product new life
What are some of your earliest memories of cassette tapes? You used to record messages on cassette tapes and send them to your friend in Australia. Can you describe the kind of nostalgia that cassette tapes evoke for you?
Sentimentally, cassette tapes were part of the medium of communication with my best friends (who live in Australia) when smartphones and social media had not been invented yet. International phone cards were too expensive for a student at that time. Therefore, we came up with a solution that we decided to record what we want to say, the music that I composed, and our favourite songs that I listened to on the radio in a cassette tape, and we sent those to each other. Compared to writing a letter, this voice message made us feel closer.
During a major clean-up of my room when I came back from New York in 2016, I found those cassette tapes and came up with this idea to use them to weave into a piece of cloth, to make waste and memories beautiful. We also found out that cassette tape is a plastic material, which is non-biodegradable, and they cannot be burned in landfill, and is very harmful to Planet Earth. My mum and I then started this project together and took about 9 months to work out a proper way to weave cassette tapes.
How did you first become aware of e-waste? And what made you want to do something to reduce e-waste?
When I was 18 years old, I was working in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. I had never flown before and it happened to be the longest flight I had ever taken. It was summer, and I was working in the kitchen of the national park, with an active volcano that could erupt anytime. Animals in the park are free to roam and I was surrounded by nature every day. It was my first and most unforgettable journey that allowed me to look deep into nature and learn to appreciate what mother nature had given to us.
I am a multi-local who has been working and living in Singapore, Malaysia, New York and Shanghai. I graduated from Parsons The New School of Design in New York and I am a recipient of Yeohlee Fellowship program which I learned from the luxury designer Yeohlee in New York who advocates locally made, zero waste and sustainable practices. I have attended the biggest climate change march in 2014 in New York. This experience had influenced me when taking action and making decisions in my daily life. During my working life as a fashion designer, I saw a lot of wastage in fashion production, and became determined to be the change that I want to see in the world.
I believe that music is a universal language, and it has the power to change the world. Our team reimagine a new way of exchanging music by addressing our global e-waste issues and transform our pre-loved cassette tapes into pieces of MusicCloth® that inspire global community. I created Rehyphen® with the aim of solving a real-life problem. Run by a mother-daughter duo, our brand produced all our products locally in Singapore.
Nearly 50 million tons of electronic waste was generated in 2018, and only 20 percent of that was recycled, according to United Nations E-waste Coalition. Today, we are fast evolving into a culture that primarily downloads and consumes entertainment digitally. Analogue media such as cassette tapes and video tapes have been phased out. Hence, I believe that strategies for the future should be based on a deep understanding of humans as emotional beings. We aim to create a ripple effect to help local communities keep and extend their memories to the next level. As we consider the challenges associated with the process, we have an opportunity to come up with a circular design idea to resource, reveal, rethink and re-share our MusicCloth® in the modern world. Our final goal is to encourage the public to reimagine how we care for our planet and challenge our community to turn waste into beautiful memories.
The well-known, British TV presenter and designer Kevin McCloud (of Grand Designs) hand-picked Rehyphen® as one of his Top Green Heroes in 2018 & 2019. He said it's "an astonishing reinvention of tape into something fashionable and fabulous.” He also suggested that MusicCloth® is "a durable and aesthetically pleasing material which can be used for a variety of items from art to fashion."
Are you hopeful for the future of sustainable fashion and upcycle art in Singapore?
In today’s consumer culture, green credentials weigh more heavily than ever. Brands must remember that consumers are looking to become a better person. Through our products and experiences, we are giving them a platform to achieve this, and at the same time, extend their memory to the next level. Waste is an ugly business, and it is our responsibility to make it beautiful. Today we cannot fool ourselves any longer that fancy things are interesting simply because they are fancy. When we think of the future of luxury, it is not just about new products, markets or ideas, it is about something deeper, about something distinctly precious — our memory. We believe that luxury today is the ability to enjoy things that have not had a destructive impact on the planet and people.
A generation raised on computers has plateaued in terms of screen innovation and we are investigating how to make things off the screen. We are taking the challenge of preconceived ideas of luxury and use the amount of waste WE create and repurposing something old into something new that gives the product a luxury integrity, an inner depth. This is no longer about sustainable fashion or upcycling. This is the future of luxury.
What are some of the more weird or unique products you have made with MusicCloth?
The most unique item is our Michael Jackson MusicCloth® silhouette portrait, which used his original cassette tapes: Bad which released in 1987; History- Past, Present and Future which was released in 1995; and Number Ones which was released in 2003. Each MusicCloth® is hand woven in a basket weave pattern and I spent about 1,300 hours from start to finish
Any thoughts on whether old or broken surfboards could be transformed into something useful?
I am sure surfers have music that they enjoyed when surfing, whether it is human-made music, or music from the sea. It will be cool to add those music playlists into our city playlist too, especially to those city that well-known for surfing! For any leftover surfboards, it will be great to turn them into tables or perhaps some other items of furniture - as the materials in surfboards are solid. I would love to have a piece of furniture made from an upcycled surfboard!
Thank you JJ and the team at Rehyphen.
Indiegogo campaign: check it out
Kevin McCloud's Green Heroes: article here.