CCS Color and Materials Design Thesis Project Repurposes Invasive Plant Species

Uproot Detroit

Increased awareness around environmental issues has many rewards: people learn to decrease the size of their carbon footprint, wasting less and recycling more. They also learn to “upcycle,” or find new uses for existing materials. A 2017 graduate of the MFA program in Color and Materials Design at CCS, Alexa Ulbrich’s thesis project, “Uproot Detroit,” paired her passion for the environment with her love of fibers and, as a result, put invasive plant species to good use.

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Ulbrich, who now works as a color, materials and finishing designer at Newell Brands, took three different invasive plant species and turned them into 26 types of paper — or, more accurately, materials: packaging material, composites, pressed pieces and more.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-native plant species in southeastern Michigan parks but only a small network of volunteers who, through the State Park Stewardship program of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), work to halt and prevent their growth. By partnering with this program, Ulbrich was able to find the hardiest invasive species to create her materials. And since manufacturing methods are often proprietary, she taught herself how to reproduce industrial processes — like hydro separation, which uses water to separate the different parts of plants — via resources available in the average kitchen.

“Every project that I work on has some sort of environmental aspect,” Ulbrich explained. “That was important for me: try to make some sort of commentary on the environment and what we can do to help it.”

Making useful materials from invasive plants, which is inherently about repurposing something that otherwise wreaks havoc on the environment, is a project that can itself be repurposed. The skills Ulbrich learned can be made available to designers everywhere, much like open-source software: “Anybody can take the information and use it any way they want,” said Ulbrich. “They can make materials they need, and it would help with the invasive species problem.”

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