On the top floor of the NGV’s vast new Triennial exhibition, there’s a collection of modernist office furniture that looks pulled from the latest interior design magazine: sleek, minimal and striking. But upon inspection, what looks like new forms of design is revealed to be the clever use of recycled materials. A filing cabinet made from old computer casings; a desk leg made from a hollowed-out MacBook; a repurposed aerating grid from a microwave oven in place of a chair leg.

The artwork is called Ore Streams and its furniture has been designed by Studio Formafantasma, an Amsterdam-based design duo known for their research-led solutions. “A lot of people misinterpret this as being just about the furniture,” says Ewan McEoin, NGV’s senior curator in contemporary design and architecture. “But that’s the last thing they did. This is a research project.”

Office furniture and the accessories are the perfect case in design dissonance. While furniture, work “pods” and office design are most-often hyped and typified by universal standards of efficiency, the same can’t be said for the electronic junk we fill them with: computers, phones, scanners, microwaves. When these items outlive their use, they become landfill, while we go out and buy more to replace them.

McEoin is one of the curators responsible for commissioning many of the works for the Triennial. The sprawling exhibition which runs until April 18, is a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, a sponsor of the NGV for more than 10 years and equally committed to exploring new perspectives in progressive design, innovation and sustainable technology. The curator says Formafantasma explores a design future in which we mine e-waste rather than extract more minerals from the ground. This prompts viewers to consider the possibility of sustainable manufacturing using smart design. “There’s enough aluminium in the world that we don’t need to make new aluminium,” says McEoin. “But we do anyway. The question is why?”

Formafantasma posit this is a problem that can be solved through better understanding of good design. “There’s a disconnect between the origin of the material and the manufacturer,” says McEoin. “What Formafantasma are proposing is designers need to understand how things are recycled. Until they can, they’ll make the same mistakes.”

He provides a current example of e-waste recycling thwarted by insensitive design decisions. The technologies used to extract metal from an old iPhone, such as scanning, colour differentiation and magnetism, are sophisticated but still fall short. “Things like gluing all the parts together in a phone [so they can’t be separated],” says McEoin. “Or wrapping copper wire in plastic, so that a scanner can’t penetrate it and detect the copper. These design decisions, probably made obliviously in the initial stages, radically reduce what can be recycled.”

Get our pick of the best news, features and events delivered twice a week

Surprisingly there’s only one mobile phone company that can tell you where all the metal in your phone comes from. Apple? “No way,” says McEoin. “It’s Dutch company Fairphone.”

Mining itself is of course a problematic business, and Australia is one of the world’s main offenders. And still we lag behind when it comes to recycling. “E-waste is worth a lot of money,” says McEoin. “But here we export our e-waste to China, who may sell it to Myanmar or Bangladesh.” E-waste ends up being pushed between countries, ending up wherever the labour is cheapest.

Ore Streams hopes to highlight the discrepancy while promoting better – and better-looking – solutions. If good design can make recycling of e-waste more viable, than the Ore Streams project will have played its part.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Mercedes-Benz, principal partner of the NGV Triennial.