‘Upcycling’ is a 21st century term, coined by Cradle to Cradle authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart. But the idea of turning waste into useful products came to life brilliantly in 1963, with the Heineken WOBO (world bottle). Envisioned by beer brewer Alfred Heineken and designed by Dutch architect John Habraken, the ‘brick that holds beer’ was ahead of its ecodesign time, letting beer lovers and builders alike drink and design all in one sitting.
Mr. Heineken’s idea came after a visit to the Caribbean where he saw two problems: beaches littered with bottles and a lack of affordable building materials. The WOBO became his vision to solve both the recycling and housing challenges that he’d witnessed on the islands.
Crazily, a shed at the Heineken estate and a wall made of WOBOs at the Heineken Museum in Amsterdam are the only structures where the ‘beer brick’ was used. As to the remaining WOBOs, it’s not clear how many exist, or where, but the idea even some four decades later remains a lasting example in end-use innovation.
But why didn’t this project didn’t take off, and why aren’t other brewers, or Coca-Cola for that matter, thinking like this? Certainly there are shipping efficiencies to packaging square bottles, and there’s no cost to the company if people decide to build things out of them. Re-use is always better than recycling, and if properly done, this could result in a virtually waste-free product.