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Michigan State University

In Service to the Earth: Caroline Yi Cheng ’86

Caroline Yi Cheng photo framed

In Service to the Earth: Caroline Yi Cheng ’86

Some talk about turning trash into treasure. Caroline Yi Cheng is really doing it. Yi Design, the upstart, Shanghai-based outfit Cheng co-founded with designer and materials researcher Karl Yin in 2021, is solving the problem of ceramic waste management by creating eco-materials for the interior design and building industries.

The journey started in 2015 when Cheng, a mad scientist type with a self-confessed “weird outlook” on art, peered at a pile of broken ceramic pots in the prominent ceramic production town of Jingdezhen, China. With much of the city’s ceramics waste dumped illegally and no government policy for recycling the material, an estimated one million tons of ceramics waste mounted each year.

“I knew I had to do something with this,” said Cheng, an accomplished artist whose work has appeared at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and The British Museum in London.

Powered by Yin’s development of a more sustainable binding material as an alternative to cement, Yi Design invented two products to propel China’s continued environmental transformation and spark a more sustainable world.

The first, YiBrick, is a material that can be used as permeable pavement for sponge cities, a fast-growing urban construction model that leverages green roofs, rain gardens and other innovations to improve flood management and strengthen ecological infrastructure. Cheng champions YiBrick, which is lighter than traditional cement bricks and greatly reduces carbon emissions rates, as an enhancement to the ecological environment and biodiversity.

Yi Design’s second product, YiTile, is suitable for walls, tabletops and other interior design elements. The hand-crafted tiles feature more than 90 percent recycled ceramic waste and come in 180 different colors.

With a growing global push for sustainable construction and design, Yi Design’s products have attracted the attention of powerhouse brands like Starbucks, which is interested in incorporating YiTile into its store designs, as well as international architecture firms seeking more eco-conscious materials.

“As a ceramic artist and inventor, this is one way I can be a part of the solution,” Cheng said.

A member of her Hong Kong high school’s Conservation Club before joining Green Peace as an MSU undergraduate studying Zoology and Studio Art, Cheng has long maintained an interest in environmental conservation. Yi Design, she said, is her opportunity to leave a legacy and contribute to a more sustainable world.

“As responsible global citizens,” Cheng said, “I believe we all need to put something positive back into the world.”

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