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 had witnessed on the islands.
The final WOBO design came in two sizes – 350 and 500 mm versions that were meant to lay horizontally, interlock and layout in the same manner as ‘brick and mortar’ construction. One production run in 1963 yielded 100,000 bottles some of which were used to build a small shed on Mr. Heineken’s estate in Noordwijk, Netherlands. One of the construction challenges “was to find a way in which corners and openings could be made without cutting bottles,” said Mr. Habraken.
Despite the success of the first “world bottle” project, the Heineken brewery didn’t support the WOBO and the idea stalled. Interest was reignited in 1975 when Martin Pawley published Garbage Housing which included the chapter ‘WOBO: a new kind of message in a bottle.’ Heineken once again approached Habraken who teamed up with designer Rinus van den Berg and designed a building with oil drums for columns, Volkswagen bus tops for roof and the WOBO bottles for walls, but the structure was never built.
Today, the shed at the Heineken estate and a wall made of WOBO at the Heineken Museum in Amsterdam are the only structures where the ‘beer brick’ was used. As to the remaining WOBO’s 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.