Robert Johnson discusses how to use waste fat as a sustainable material in talk for VDF and Design Museum

Designer Robert Johnson presents a panel discussion around his Fatconomy system, which explores using London's wastes a sustainable material, as part of VDF's collaboration with the Design Museum.

The third event for today's Design Museum takeover is chaired by writer and curator Priya Khanchandani. She will be joined by Johnson, Purefuels directors Tom Lascia and Paul Fraser, researcher at material innovation studio Materiom Zoe Powell.

Design Museum designer in residence Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson was one of the Design Museum's Designers in Residence 2019

Johnson's Design Museum residency project, Fatconomy, is the starting point for the discussion, which will focus on how innovation can lead to waste fat being used in more productive ways.

His project examined the waste produced by restaurant in London to explore how a production system could be established within pre-existing waste recycling models.

Fatconomy by Robert Johnson
The designer got fat samples from over a hundred different London restaurants and cuisines

It featured a takeaway restaurant-inspired display of fat samples taken from 144 London restaurants, as well as objects created from the waste fat. These included an apron, a Crocs-style shoe, cable ties and packaging materials.

The designer also created a fat map of London. "This is basically taking a more nuanced approach to the fat waste of London, in methods of extraction," Johnson explained.

"It's taking a close look at the detailed landscape of 'what does this fat data say', and what can we do with it from a material perspective."

Fatconomy by Robert Johnson
Samples were marked with the date and type of restaurant

Lascia and Fraser from PureFuel will expand on this concept of Fatconomy to show how fat can be recycled for new use. Their company collects used cooking oils and fats in London and south east England and processes them into environmentally-friendly fuels.

The fuel produces virtually no waste, and can be used in cars and other vehicle engines, to generate electricity, and as boiler heating oil.

Fatconomy by Robert Johnson
The fat was then used to create new products, including shoes and aprons

Powell will join the discussion on behalf of Materiom, which provides open-source recipes and data on materials made from natural ingredients including agricultural waste. She will explore how local waste can become a resource for new materials, and how this can help us change our habits and reliance on standard plastics.

Following the discussion, Johnson will screen his short film Of Material and Labour, which shows a day in the life of Cooper, a fictional fat miner based in south London, to highlight the human-centred side of a "waste system design".


About Design Museum

The Design Museum is the world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary architecture and design. Its mission is to make the impact of design visible through its exhibitions and collection, as well as its learning and research activities.

Designers in Residence is an annual residency programme run by the Design Museum and supported by the Arts Council of England. It provides emerging designers with time and space away from their regular environment to reflect, research and consider new ways of developing their practice. Previous residents include Asif Khan, Bethan Laura Wood, Yuri Suzuki and Legrand Jäger.

The 2020 cohort of Designers in Residence will be announced shortly.