Reduce, reuse . . . upcycle

The Rediscovery Centre, in Ballymun in Dublin, specialises in adding value to things we might once have thrown away

You can see the red-and-white striped chimney of the Boiler House from the M50 exit for Ballymun. It’s a striking reminder of the innovative communal heating system for the seven tower blocks of flats that once dominated this north Dublin suburb.

“It used to be called the eighth tower. It was a really progressive heating system in the 1960s, and was showcased on a European level. It was due to be demolished in 2012 until we showed an interest,” says Dr Sarah Miller, chief executive of the Rediscovery Centre, which moved into the repurposed building this month.

The centre began as a series of environmental social enterprises at Ballymun Regeneration Project. People on community-employment schemes were trained to recycle paint, recondition bicycles and furniture, and upcycle unwanted clothes into items of ecofashion. All these projects have now moved to the new centre, which will also host reuse and education workshops for all ages.

“We want to create an ecodestination for waste prevention and minimisation, reuse and the circular economy [in which waste materials are seen as resources]. The building itself showcases renewable-energy technologies and allows us to research the most efficient systems to use at different times of the year,” Miller says.


The Boiler House received an A2 building energy rating the day before our visit. “We were expecting a B rating, so we’re thrilled. It’s rare for a retrofitted building like this to gain an A rating.”

The Irish Times is getting a sneak preview of the building, before the official launch of the Rediscovery Centre's programme of activities for the year, in March. A cafe run by Green Kitchen, the Walkinstown social enterprise that employs people with learning disabilities, will also open in March. In addition, the centre has an ecoshop that sells restored and reconditioned bicycles, and ecofashion items, from tablet cases to couture dresses, among other things.

As we tour the site Miller points out reused and salvaged materials, as well as the renewable-energy technologies incorporated into its design. So the steel girders and concrete floors from the original Boiler House remain. “Steel and concrete have high levels of embodied carbon, so keeping them reduces the carbon footprint of the building,” she says.

Sinks and kitchen equipment were salvaged from Ballymun shopping centre, and teak benches were brought from a defunct science laboratory in Poolbeg. Stackable conference chairs have been reupholstered by the ecofashion crew, and tables have been made from large wooden spools by the furniture recycling division.

Renewable technologies include solar panels for water heating and electricity generation, an air-to-water heat pump and a gas-fired heat-and-power system. “Our target is to generate 95 per cent of our electricity on site and have a mini smart grid using all the renewable energy technologies.”

The internal pipework is labeled so that visitors can see how fresh water and grey water are transported to the kitchens, toilets and living green walls inside and outside the building. The walls have been insulated with reused sheep wool and hemp. Even the solid waste from the toilets is composted and used in the garden.

Miller says that the team working on the €3.6 million project, which was funded by the EU Life+ programme, the Government and Dublin City Council, took inspiration from the Centre for Alternative Technology, in Wales, the Eden Project, in Cornwall, and the UK headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund, in London. Two old concrete reservoirs have been given green roofs, with plant beds for demonstration purposes. Inside, the reservoirs are used for storage; they may also be used for workshops in the future.

So what sort of people will the Rediscovery Centre attract? “It’s a niche market of people interested in environmental issues, those who want to live more sustainably, and individuals who are building eco homes and looking for inspiration,” Miller says. The workshop programme, she adds, will attract people wanting to learn new skills.

How does the work being done here compare with examples around Europe? “The upcycled products created by people in the Community Reuse Network are of a high standard here, but other countries have commercialised the second-hand market more, lifting it to a high level where people are excited about going to these large retail outlets.”

Miller says that in Ireland we’re good at collecting and shipping materials abroad but lack a recycling infrastructure. “Our paper, plastics and textiles are all sent overseas. And there’s still a high level of contamination, in that over 30 per cent of recycled materials end up in landfill. That needs to improve for business opportunities to develop in this market.”

Ultimately, she believes, more value can be derived from what most of us discard. “There can’t be one solution, but the waste-management hierarchy should be followed. This means starting with waste prevention and moving to reuse, recycling, composting, then having waste-recovery plants, such as the soon-to-be-opened Poolbeg incinerator, generating electricity from waste materials as the last step.”


Rediscover Fashion, which creates one-off designs from discarded textiles, is part of a new wave of upcycling that finds value in materials that would otherwise end up in landfill.

“Ecofashion has had a bad press in the past, because it wasn’t of a high standard. But we provide bespoke dressmaking and tailoring services,” Carrie Ann Moran, a designer and the manager of this social enterprise at the Rediscovery Centre.

The fashion workshop started out in the Shangan block of flats in 2008. In January 2017 it moved into the repurposed Boiler House.

“We were part of the environmental [dimension] of the Ballymun Regeneration Project. You have to remember that the old Ballymun flats had no waste-management system. Everything was sent down a chute to be dumped,” says Moran, who is doing a master’s degree in sustainability at University College Dublin.

The project began with a few donated sewing machines and rolls of fabric. Since then it has built up a lot more stock, plus cutting tables and all the other tools of the trade.

The Rediscover Fashion label has included a women’s corporate collection, made from discarded men’s suits, and brightly coloured capes, made from old wool coats. Cushions, tote bags, aprons and tablet cases are other items created from offcut fabrics and good-quality used clothing.

Everything is handmade in the workshop by trainees and designers, and Moran wears her own upcycled vintage clothes.

“We reuse about a tonne of textiles a year. We’re most interested in fabrics and textiles, but we do take good-quality clothing. What we don’t find suitable we give to charity shops,” Moran says.

Moran's dream project is to reuse discarded textiles from an Irish retail store to create a range of products for the Rediscovery Centre to sell. Stella McCartney's Barricade tennis shoes for Adidas, which are made from factory offcuts, are one inspiration; the UK brand From Somewhere is another.

“The concept is out there, but it hasn’t been done in Ireland yet,” Moran says.

Watch this space.