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From Trash to Treasure: Rethinking our Relationship with Waste Rebecca Pridham

It’s a Sunday afternoon and the Launceston Freelance Festival is opening with a pre-conference sustainability workshop. Dr Kirtsy Máté, designer, educator, researcher, consultant, writer, artist, and owner of small business, Reth!nk Design, has the floor and she’s here to help us rethink waste and the ways we consume.

Scattered across my desk are a series of plastic bags, some knitting needles borrowed from a neighbour, a couple of old T-shirts and some cardboard, amongst other bits and bobs. It’s hard to imagine how these seemingly paltry items will be transformed into something of value, but as the old proverb goes, fools and bairns should never see half-done work.

Kirsty certainly doesn’t see a pile of stuff making its slow demise to landfill.

If fact, she would like to see the word ‘waste’ eliminated from the dictionary.

‘The first thing that we think of when we say waste is it has no use,’ she says, ‘If we’re always thinking about the things that we're not using and how they could be used, then hopefully we will never end up with stuff that we now term waste into landfill.’

To Kirsty, recycling is a last resort. Our efforts should lie with upcycling, repurposing items to fulfill a greater function, never transforming something into less value than it originally had.

Rethink is her mantra and it’s an invitation to stop, take a breath, and reflect. It’s an opportunity to reconsider our relationship with things, to look at the bigger picture, and to make better decisions.

With over 30 years working in sustainability, Kirsty’s drive is unwavering.

A lifelong companion, her passion for the environment has been with her since childhood. Kirsty recalls a letter she wrote to her grandfather when she was only 10 years old, expressing her dismay that trees were being chopped down in the forest.

Many years later, working as a graduate architect in Germany, she had a blinding flash of the obvious: that everything we do has an impact on the environment.

‘It's bringing those two things together that drives me because I really believe that those two things can make a big difference in the world and can actually steer us on the right track,’ she says.

Reflecting on her colourful career, there’s one moment that stands out to her, the Made Accountable expo, which she founded in 1995 with the Society of Responsible Design. Held in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, the five-day expo showcased over 50 exhibitors in both art and design, and hosted fashion shows and workshops.

‘The whole event was organised on a shoestring with the passion and dedication of volunteers, sponsors and donors,’ says Kirsty, ‘I worked on it full time for a year doing market research for dog food amongst other things just to pay my rent!’

Her hard work paid off, for this event was responsible for launching her to where she is today.

An opportunity to network with pioneers throughout the area, Kirsty realised she was one of few experts in the field. This scored her a job as a researcher with the Centre of Design at RMIT University, a position she held for 18 months. She then went on to establish her own consultancy firm, EcoBalance Sustainable Design Consulting, which she ran for eight years before moving into academia.

After 15 years working at universities, it was time for a change and she was ready to get Reth!nk Design up and running.

Rethink

Reth!nk design makes reusable gift wraps, with two designs on offer.

The first is made from reused and leftover materials foraged from op shops and industry waste. Each design is one of a kind, reincarnating ‘waste’ into something beautiful and functional.

The second design, the heirloom wrap, made from organic cotton and eco-friendly inks, was a finalist in the Tasmanian Design Awards.

Kirsty’s inspiration for her gift wrap came in the mid-nineties. She recalls being at a wedding where the couple decided to open their gifts then and there. She remembers them ripping through present after present, a tower of wrapping paper piling up, ready to be unceremoniously carted off to landfill.

‘I just thought what a waste,’ she says, ‘that's just a resource that's had a few minutes of use and it's gone. So, I thought there must be a better way.’

And so, the idea was born. Unfortunately, it was way ahead of its time and was put on the shelf for a few decades until the timing was ripe.

In 2019, Kirsty received a photo from an old friend. It was of her mother’s Christmas tree, underneath which were presents wrapped in Kirsty’s now 20-year-old wraps. They had been reused by the family Christmas after Christmas.

Kirsty thought it a shame that no record had been kept of each wrap’s journey, documenting the occasions it had been shared. She saw these wraps had value beyond their material function; they also told stories.

This inspired the heirloom wrap, patterned with open leaves in which people can leave their mark through writing or stitching. The idea is that over time the wrap will become tattooed with mementos and memories, stories etched deeper with each exchange.

‘Narrative and storytelling is really important for valuing things,’ she says, ‘And if we value them, we're less likely to throw them away.’

Storytelling is a common thread in Kirsty’s work it seems. Perhaps the most palpable example of this is her Bye Buy! Pop up Shop, a community project in Launceston which she established as part of her PhD.

A very unconventional shop, nothing could be bought or sold. Instead, Bye Buy! facilitated four stations, each exploring a branch of sustainable exchange.

The Swap Shop invited people to trade in unused items. There was a catch though; they needed to provide a story to accompany their old item, revealing details such as where they got it and why they no longer used it, and these stories really took off.

‘It was so amazing to see people going through these things. They weren't looking at the objects; they were looking at the stories. It was the stories that were really inspiring, and they attached a value,’ Kirsty says fondly.

The Story Exchange explored why people feel the need to consume, debunking ‘retail therapy’ and the necessity to buy something new for an emotional high. It reconnected with healthier ways of getting that same emotional value, such as calling a friend, without making a purchase.

The Repair Deli ran workshops to teach people how to repair things, empowering them to extend the lives of their damaged items, rather than simply replacing them.

Lastly, the Slow Market was an antidote to the fast nature of exchange, where we can walk into a shop and make a purchase within minutes. This station slowed down the interaction, a reminder that things take time and resources to make.

As part of this station, Kirsty held workshops where people could make their own products out of recycled materials. At one of these, she assisted a father and his young son in making a kite.

‘They were both learning from that exchange and were interacting with one another,’ she says, ‘There's a higher level of engagement and a higher level of value when you actually make the kite yourself and then go and use it.’

The biggest lesson Kirsty took from Buy Bye! was how powerful a sense of curiosity can be.

‘This idea of curiosity, I think, is actually really important for sustainability,’ she says, ‘Curiosity taps into our intrinsic values, and when we tap into our intrinsic values, our behaviour is much more likely to change permanently because we're getting some self-worth.’

She’s a firm believer that curiosity and innovation go hand in hand, but to her innovation is bigger than its dominant economic association. It’s social too. It brings people together and builds resilient communities.

‘Innovation is putting a box of vegetables outside the front of your house that no one has done before in your street. That's also innovation,’ she says.

Clearly, 30+ years of experience has bestowed an ocean of wisdom upon Kirsty. To her sustainability is not a field. It is far reaching and diverse, and it touches every one of us.

‘We all belong to these incredibly intertwined and integrated systems,’ she says, ‘It doesn't matter if we're a designer or a builder or a lawyer or a mum or a child. It really doesn't matter who you are, every decision you make is integrated within more than one system.’

She wholeheartedly believes that the most important thing we learn is that we belong to these multiple systems and that what we do has an impact, because this drives us to think differently.

A call, it seems to realise our power and step into it. And she’s adamant that we do have power. It might not be within our means to become an Eco Warrior, but this shouldn’t deter us from making any changes we can.

‘We can all make little changes, small incremental changes that can make a huge difference,’ she says.

Whether this is boycotting poorly designed products, consuming less, or simply buying local, it all adds up.

The eternal optimist, she’s hopeful that the lessons that we’ve learned in the midst of a global pandemic will be carried through to the other side.

‘I think we will adapt, and we will look at things differently. I think there are some really positive things that can happen and will change how we think about sustainability,’ she says.

She’s confident change will continue to happen in a rhizomatic way. A flourishing future will be change happening in different places, at different levels and in different ways. It’ll be in belief systems, grassroot movements and legislation.

‘A rhizome grows through tendrils and root systems. You can pull up part of the rhizome, but there'll be this underground part of it that you can't see that’s still growing and so it'll come up. If you try to kill a rhizome, it's nearly always impossible,’ she says.

Knitting plastic

What’s next for Kirsty? Well, we she’s got a few ideas up her sleeve for Reth!nk, but she’s not giving anything away.

‘The idea is to work on small projects that can actually make a big impact,’ she says, ‘I do want to expand the range beyond just the gift wrap, but it will have the same context about replacing single use products with reusable products.’

We’ll have to bide our time, but we can expect big things to keep on coming from this sustainability pioneer.

The workshop is over, and my old T-shirts have been transformed into a couple of shopping bags. They’ll serve me well on my next trip to the farmer’s market. It’s an upgrade from the rags they otherwise would have become; they’ve safely averted the undignified destiny of scrubbing my shower screen.

I’ve cut my plastic bags at their tops and spiralled my scissors downward, creating a long string of plarn, plastic yarn. I’m not as quick at knitting as Kirsty, so it’s an ongoing project, but soon my phone will have a snug little sock to sit in, a safeguard from its clumsy owner.

These materials have certainly come a long way from the former pile of ‘waste’ on my desk.