By Prem Chandika Devi
Many are familiar with Barbara Cooney’s award-winning story, Miss Rumphius. But few take it quite so seriously as Laura Kutner, a young woman from Portland, Oregon.
In this children’s classic young Alice Rumphius’ grandfather gives her three life tasks. She is instructed to go to faraway places, to live by the sea, and to do something to make the world more beautiful. It seems like a recipe for a fairly good life, and Laura is determined to put it to the test. She’s seen some faraway places and lived by the sea, and now Laura is on a mission to make the world more beautiful.
Trash for Peace is a non-profit that she incorporated in August 2012. The organization’s goal is to educate about the importance of reducing, reusing and rethinking waste by using functional art, thus decreasing the need for conventional large-scale recycling. Activities and projects for individuals of all ages bring awareness to the use of disposable items, make traditional recycling more convenient and promote the direct repurposing of recyclables.
The ideas that inspired Trash for Peace came to Laura when she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote town called Granados in central Guatemala. Since Granados didn’t have a sanitary landfill, residents burned their household waste and often left disposable items in the streets. With a growing culture of disposable products, the town was littered in plastic bags, food wrappers, and plastic bottles.
The area had its share of economic hardships. Laura was working with youth who were crowded into tiny, extremely loud schoolrooms. Through children and trash Laura saw her opportunity to make Granados a little bit more beautiful. “When I first came to Granados, other Peace Corps volunteers would say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky you’re working with kids,’ she explained, ‘because when you’re in with the kids, you’re in with the parents.’” Laura became interested in a group called Pura Vida Atitlan that had created a system for building walls out of trash. After seeing basic designs for one-room buildings constructed of plastic bags stuffed into plastic bottles, she began a campaign to build new classrooms for the school.
Here’s how it worked: the entire community, led by the children, would go out and collect bottles and plastic bags from the ground. They stuffed bags—often over a hundred—into plastic bottles until they had created “eco-bricks,” a term coined by Pura Vida Atitlan. And then they stacked the bottles to create the base of walls. These bottle walls were then encased in chicken wire and covered in plaster. With a few windows, a door, and a roof, they had a working one-room structure.
The school principal, Reyna Ortiz de Ramirez, loved the idea, and her enthusiasm was contagious. Zonia Garcia Garcia, another teacher at the school, jumped on board. The project started to gain support around town. “We have volunteers, in the States, but in Guatemala it’s more like forced community engagement, Laura explains. You’re not volunteering…it’s just what you do.” Creating a repurposing culture through the kids seemed to be working. Having cleaned much of their town of roadside trash, the children led the charge to continue collecting trash and keep the streets clean.
The bottle project received notable attention in the states. PBS NewsHour and ABC World News both aired stories. The Peace Corps made a video to train future volunteers to create similar projects around the world. And Laura, Reyna, and Zonia were invited to come to D.C. and build recycle bins and a sample wall on the Washington mall as a part of the Smithsonian’s Folklife festival.
After returning to the United States, Laura decided to return to something familiar while she applied for graduate school. She picked up the same job she had before she joined the Peace Corps and started making coffee at a Starbucks in Portland, OR. She noticed that, though the Starbucks employees had a recycling area in the back, the customers had nowhere to recycle their plastic cold-coffee cups. She started asking around. It turned out that this was not only the case for her branch, but also the other Starbucks locations in the Portland area.
So Laura proposed to construct recycling bins out of the used plastic cups. She created a prototype, and Starbucks loved it. Instead of copyrighting and patenting her model, Laura started developing manuals and activity books to distribute for free. One friend offered to build a website so the PDF files could be posted online. With more encouragement, Laura decided to incorporate Trash for Peace as a 501(c) 3 non-profit enterprise.
In Guatemala, fewer building regulations made it feasible to construct schools out of trash. The schools required both a lot of time and a lot of community engagement, both of which are harder to come by in the United States economy. The recycling bins, on the other hand, only require a few people and a day or so to build. And since the bins aren’t weight-bearing they can be constructed out of the empty bottles; no one has to stuff all of the plastic bags inside. With the bins, Trash for Peace uses a hands-on method to promote the concepts of waste reduction, just like Laura did with the bottle-walled classrooms.
The idea has taken off. Laura has received emails from teachers in Arizona, Utah, and Maryland who found her website and built bins with their students. The town of Granados has built bins to collect trash around town. What they collect is still burned, but the program helps keep the streets clean and keep some awareness about trash collection in a place where, like many places in the world, an increasing corporate influence yielded a culture of more and more disposable products, and there was nowhere to put them.
The Trash for Peace volunteers have many ideas on how to expand their programs. They have started plots in community gardens, projects in high schools, and are working on a podcast. Events are held all over the Portland area, such as Trashy Trivia for adults, fundraisers, and an exciting new program for adolescent boys in a low-income housing development. “The boys group is very enthusiastic,” Laura says, “and they want job skills.”
One idea in the works is to create a zero-waste coffee café where the boys can work as baristas, gaining important and useful skills for the Pacific Northwest culture. This would be a coffee shop without paper cups, a shop where everything is composted, and the beans come in from Latin America. “I love coffee,” Laura states, “and the carbon footprint of drinking it is pretty sad… we don’t need to bring in coffee from Rwanda. It’s probably delicious! But we can get really good beans from a lot closer.” She envisions the café purchasing carbon offsets for obtaining, roasting, and transporting coffee beans. And though they won’t use paper or plastic to-go cups, they won’t waste the earth’s resources to make their own ceramic mugs, either. “How many coffee mugs are just sitting at Goodwill?” she asks, “and what would it take to put a personalized sticker on that could handle going through a dishwasher?”
Trash for Peace faces some challenges. With so many great ideas flowing it can be hard to focus. It’s difficult to categorize their program because it spans so many areas of activism, and while this may sound like a boon, it can make finding grants more difficult. And real activism is never easy. Our species’ situation on this planet is dire, and it’s impossible to repurpose plastic bottles at the same rate they accumulate.
When Laura finds herself slipping into negativity about the challenges of doing good work, she takes a step back, “I can’t not do this. I want it to be challenging, and that’s part of the fun; that’s part of the reward. Yes, global warming is happening…but every little thing makes a difference. You just need to get perspective. We don’t think about all the little things that people are doing, all the time.” She takes comfort in knowing that there is no one perfect solution. “We’re evolving, little by little, seeing what’s working and what’s not…and we’re not the only ones.”
Laura is humble, too. She asserts that well-known leaders are successful due to the unsung leaders who champion them. “People have an idea that a leader is a public speaker, the one up front talking about it, but there’s not one leader who has done it on his or her own. There’s a team. There’s a support network.” She credits the people who help her—the volunteers and community members—for the maintenance of her positive outlook. And this positivity goes both ways. Laura notes that her personal relationships in Granados were more impactful than the bottle school itself. “As I was really leaving, no one said thank you for the projects that we did. They said, ‘Thank you for the relationship you had with my children.’”
Trash for Peace isn’t just building functional art; they’re building relationships between people, waste, and beauty. To join Trash for Peace’s support network, find out about events, or get free blueprints for building your own bins, check out www.trashforpeace.org or find them on Facebook.
Prem Chandika Devi is a yogi, traveller, and writer based in Portland, Oregon. This is her first submission to The Ecotone Exchange.