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Three green ornate hair combs made from Shell Homage material.

Innovation at its most beautiful

Interview with Rania Elkalla - the bright mind behind the beautiful Shell Homage.

issue twelve: all things bright and beautiful

We are all now aware of the impact of plastic pollution has on the environment. Not to mention the climate impact of extracting crude oil from the earth’s crust to make virgin plastic items that will never degrade entirely. But did you know that if food waste were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) after America and China?

So, what does food waste have to with a beauty platform you ask? Well, more than you might think. More and more beauty brands are turning to food waste as an ingredient resource stream – helping cut financial costs and reduce their reliance on virgin resources.

In my ongoing search for beautiful and innovative ideas, I came across Rania Elkalla – an Egyptian-born, Berlin-based award-winning material designer who is turning food waste into the most exquisite material that can be used to create everything from hair combs to furniture.

Who is Rania Elkalla? How did you land up becoming an award-winning materials designer?

I am a nature and music lover who enjoys simple things in life—the proud daughter of two amazing parents, and the middle sister of two strong women. I am an integrated designer with a background in product and graphic design and have material science and production experience. I have had an interest in materials from a very young age. Which is probably why I always needed to touch and feel tangible objects. For example, I would much rather buy a magazine than read it online because I love the paper’s texture, the embossed elements on the cover and the smell of the fresh print. 

A colour photograph of Rania Elkalla wearing a smart black blouse and a gold watch. Her hair is lightly curled and hangs over her shoulders.
Rania Elkalla

As a student, I began to understand the integral role materials play in design. I started collecting various items for inspiration. Everything from cheese packaging netting to the metal mesh sheets used in filters. All out of curiosity of why they were used and what else could be done with them. 

The idea of using different nutshells was inspired by my father. I grew up in a family that cared a lot about eating healthy, organic food and as such, we ate many nuts. My father always used to buy fresh nuts still in their shells, and he would crack them just before eating. When he would break them open, they scattered everywhere, and I would help collect the shells. I began to realise how wonderful and strong the material was and noticed its resemblance to wood. Later on, I realised there was a similarity with eggshells. Eggs are one of the main ingredients in the kitchen, but their versatility is often overlooked. 

In 2010, I started to work my investigation into eggshells and nutshells into my bachelor thesis. My main concern was finding the right recipe for creating a completely sustainable and biodegradable material that did not rot or break down quickly – while in use. 

Initially, I reprocessed the shells by combining them with synthetic resin. The resulting material looked great and was very durable, but I felt guilty for using an artificial resin which did not allow the material to decay naturally in the environment. 

So, I had to read, research and experiment a lot to learn about biopolymers or biodegradable binding agents. I spoke to so many material engineers and scientists, and eventually, I reached my perfect recipe. 

What is Shell Homage?

Shell Homage was born from a master research project. It is now a startup that demonstrates the range of established materials that it can replace. As well as how the material can be used in different contexts and situations and the opportunities in developing entirely new materials from scratch.

As a material, Shell Homage is an all-natural biodegradable composite* made out of discarded egg and nutshells and plant-based biopolymers. It’s light-weight and versatile, and it doesn’t require any harmful toxic chemicals. It creates an experience that is meaningful and delightful to users. Not to mention that it is aesthetically pleasing too. 

Shell Homage means respect and honour for those discarded shells – and homage for its entire journey, and what the shells have carried inside.

*A material made from multiple parts of components.

How did you discover this natural composite? Was it something you dreamed up, or was it more the magic of alchemy?

Mainly through experimentations, research and lot of trial and error. 

I believe that creativity comes from trials and exploration of other fields. It’s all about having a curiosity to experiment with new things and not just to limit yourself to the knowledge you have gained in your particular area. It is not any to bridge the gap in information and techniques – but what matters more is the process. I want to finding meaningful solutions, enabling new understandings, inspiring and creating a positive impact in society and our own daily lives. Furthermore, I focus not only on objects and installations but also on the creative process of how they are made. 

I have always been interested in designing with physical materials and exploring natural resources while embracing various design and production methods. 

In general, I think food waste is one of the most interesting of all materials to work with… since so much of our lives revolve around food. It is the essence of life. When people viewed my material for the first time – without knowing what it was made from – their reactions were fascinating. Once they learned that is was made from food waste, they became inquisitive about the texture, surface, and colour fusion. No one ever expects that it is made out of egg and nutshells. 

They get more excited when they know it is biodegradable and has a beneficial environmental impact. Some say it looks like cornflakes or biscuits – others said marble, granite, wood, ceramic or even that it seems like a precious stone. Others smelled it and wanted to eat it. As a designer, I realised if you choose food as your material, it’s something that can really move people, which I think is very special.

Talk to me about eggshells….and nutshells: Why those two?

The food industry is one of the biggest industries in the world – and with that comes a lot of waste. I am mostly focused on egg and nutshell waste because they are so often overlooked. There is so much more to these two shell types than meets the eye. 

There are more than 1 trillion eggs laid every year. Now, imagine how much waste that many eggs produce? Eggshells contain about 95% calcium carbonate, one of nature’s most absorbent materials. They also contain collagen and can capture up to 78 per cent of carbon dioxide from the air.  

Moreover, there are millions of tons of nuts which go unused every year. Nutshells are heat and water resistance and are as durable as wood. 

Most of a nuts weight is included in its outer shell; for example, Walnut shell comprises 67% of the fruit’s total weight. These shells are a fantastic natural resource. There is no need to throw everything away as we do.

Scientific studies have proven that they enhance the bio-polymer properties. 

How much raw material do you need to make a m²of Shell Homage?

It really depends on the purpose of the object or intended product. The material mixture differs depending on if I am designing a comb, tabletop or light unit. 

Three green mottled pick combs in various styles inspired by Egyptian shapes.
Image courtesy of Shell Homage

How do you source the shells? And what processing do they go through before they are ready to be used?

I get the shells from different farms, local stores, bakeries, restaurants, nut stores and friends. 

To make the composite, the shells are collected, cleaned, sterilised, dried and then ground into different sizes and are then mixed with other organic and biodegradable substances. 

It takes around an hour to produce one sheet, starting from collecting the shells to complete the final product – depending on what I am making, of course. 

Three images demonstrating how Rania Elkalla uses the extruder to make the eggshell filliments.
Rania making eggshell filaments

What are the different applications of the composite? Where and how can it be used?

The biodegradable material is a replacement for oil-based plastics. It can be applied to various applications—everything from interiors, light and furniture design, home accessories, consumable goods,  and jewellery design. 

The material surface varies from rough to smooth, opaque, translucent and transparent. The end material’s properties can be controlled by the production method, creating results that range from hard to malleable, elastic sheets.

I can produce similar properties to stone or ceramic by adjusting the mixture ratio, meaning it can be drilled or sanded, or laser cut. It can even be pressed, extruded, 3D printed or formed by injection moulding. Sometimes I add colours into the mix– these are also extracted from food ingredients.

We sell customised sheets and different products like wall clocks, light units, hair combs and furniture. So the price really differs from one product to another. 

Each piece produced by Shell Homage is handcrafted, unique, and 100% compostable. 

How does one discard of it, and how long does it take to decompose? 

This will depend on the product’s size and the amount of the filler used. Although, in my thesis research, evidence suggests the material starts breaking down almost immediately once placed directly into the ground. 

For long-term use items, one should avoid humid environments like bathrooms because such conditions will start the natural decay process much quicker. 

If you don’t have a garden or your own compost bin, you can take the items to your local composting site.

Where could someone purchase your designs? 

I sell my own designs using Shell Homage material through my Instagram and Facebook pages and in different design pop up and concept stores. I am currently working on the website and will hopefully launch soon.  

The material can also be customised to different designers needs, allowing them to create endless, remarkable designs through various applications of their choice.

What are your dreams and ambitions for Shell Homage?

We believe that Shell Homage will have a significant positive impact on the environment. Not only by helping to replace oil-based plastics – but reducing food waste and adding nourishment to the soil when it degrades.  

We now have entirely new know-how regarding egg and nutshell waste, and we want to put that knowledge to good use across lots of industries.

We want to encourage people to save their waste shells for us. To make it easy for people to do that, we know that we need to create new, local and convenient collection points for onward delivery to a central processing hub. The shells can then be sorted and processed into new surfaces and beautiful, valuable and beneficial products to help change perceptions about the things we consider waste. 

Scientific research suggests eggshells can be used in medical fields. For example, they are suitable for dental fillings. They can even help heal bone injuries – if mixed with appropriate bio-compatible polymers. We would like to engage with the medical sector about the possibilities eggshells’ offer the industry, and make the material accessible at an affordable cost.

Within the next five years, we plan to showcase Shell Homage in different international material libraries, making it easily accessible to customers from various design industries. Everyone from architects, automotive designers to the 3D printing industry. 

Our vision is to grow a 100% green business that will make a positive difference for our environment. 

What other (if any) beautiful, innovative materials have you made or are dreaming up?

I have experimented with cacao shells before; it was interesting to work with and always enjoyed the smell while working. I am continually looking into other food waste so I can experiment with its properties.

Who do you feel are the most bright and beautiful minds – dead or alive – and why?

Through my journey as a designer, I have met many inspiring people.  I am inspired by Dieter Rams – a German industrial designer who has designed many of Braun’s most iconic products. I also love the work of Italian design-duo Formafantasma, for their experimentation with different materials. 

untainted |ˌənˈtān(t)əd| adjective
not contaminated, polluted, or tainted: the paper was untainted by age.

UNTAINTED is a directional beauty platform, pushing the boundaries of clean, sustainable beauty. We are inspired and motivated by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

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