Benefiting from our castoffs

Last updated 14:14 02/05/2012
artsrecycle
WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ
ALL USEFUL: Arts Recycling Centre co-ordinator Jim Richards, with materials that artists and crafters reuse. It was all previously dumped.

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Dumb recycling. Do those wheely bins make enough difference? Reporter Lee Matthews looks at Palmerston North's Arts Recycling Centre, which runs on rubbish and wants to expand its environmental edge to see people reduce using resources and reuse goods before they recycle.

Jim Richards calls it "dumb recycling". The orange-topped bin lurks in the driveway, and Palmerston North householders puddle out to it with an armload of paper, plastic, tins, or glass, and plonk in their recyclables.

They'll have a warm, happy glow for being clean and green. What goes in the bin doesn't go to the landfill. It gets recycled, reducing the waste stream. Oh, what a nice, smug feeling ... but, according to Mr Richards, it's not nearly enough.

He co-ordinates Palmerston North's Arts Recycling Centre in the courtyard of Square Edge. The centre is subsidised by Community Arts Palmerston North. And while he is pleased to see anyone thinking further than just chucking waste in a hole in the ground, he says consumers should be thinking harder about the reducing and reusing thread of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" green mantra.

"If we produce all this stuff just to throw it away or to recycle it, what on Earth is the point? A great deal of waste comes from packaging; cardboard, plastic, polystyrene foam. Polystyrene ... we can't do anything with it, except maybe a bit of insulation. So why don't we stop using it and find better packing that we could reuse.

"Eliminate it from the waste stream by not using it in the first place. And reuse what is there, to stop having to recycle it."

He and Community Arts' John Barnes say the ARC could become more than an arts recycling centre. There's a whole other area of environmental awareness and saving that should be being brought into focus, parallel to the centre's creative arty side.

"It's got to become bigger than what we're doing now," Mr Richards says. "There should be one of these centres in every town in New Zealand."

Mr Barnes says the first step they've taken is getting Community Arts Palmerston North registered with Inland Revenue as an "approved donor" organisation. The group is registered with the Charities Commission, and any donations are now counted as a source of income. Money given to Community Arts for the Arts Recycling Centre is tax refundable; givers get 33 per cent back, like any other charity.

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"So if somebody wants to give us $15, they'll get $5 back through their tax. If you do it through payroll, your employer can take out the money when you're paid, and you don't have to retain donation receipts and make a tax claim. It happens immediately," Mr Barnes says.

The Arts Recycling Centre now operates a thrifty reuse system that would make Depression-reared nanas beam with pride. The theory is that if something can be used again, it can be rehomed for reuse through the centre. People bring in clean, interesting, useful stuff – unwanted paper, fabric scraps, yarn, plastics of every description, bubble wrap, cardboard, old Christmas cards, magazines, rubber bands, wood offcuts, part-empty tins of paint, leftover wallpaper, odd nails, and screws from DIY projects.

People with a craft or artistic bent use it. Most stuff has an under-$2 price tag – part of the philosophy of the place is to move stock; keeping the community's artistic juices flowing at a reasonable cost.

Low-cost access to materials is the guiding principle.

Schools and kindergartens use the centre extensively for raw materials. Mr Richards estimates that probably 70 per cent of the materials used in last year's Feilding High School Event's wearable arts show was sourced from the centre. Anyone who can think of anything to do with the materials is welcome to have a go.

It supplies raw materials for a large creative culture in Palmerston North and further afield. People come from all over the North Island, and many ask why their own communities haven't set up something similar. Informal survey forms filled out by satisfied customers repeat this – keep going, please don't stop this place, why isn't there one in Auckland/Hawke's Bay/Gisborne, make it bigger please, keep going, we love you, this is fabulous.

So far so good. But it's a shoestring operation – Community Arts Palmerston North runs on about $150,000 a year, half of which comes from a Palmerston North City Council grant, and it subsidises the centre. The centre runs, with mostly volunteer staff, on about $35,000 a year. More would be good; it could lease a van so Mr Richards could pick up materials to reuse from companies, tapping a huge stream waste that companies now see as being too difficult to deal with, other than by dumping or recycling.

"Companies might recycle already, taking stuff off to recycling centres. That's good. But before we recycle, which takes energy, we should be asking is there a way to reuse this product, and, going another step back, is there a way to reduce what's produced in the first place," Mr Richards says.

Two reuse products always in demand at the centre are brewery tubing and obo foam.

Brewery tubing is firm plastic tubing that delivers beer or other drinks from pump to keg.

Mr Richards says at least 10 tonnes of it used to go to landfills around Manawatu each year. He told the companies how useful it could be and how they could save dump fees if they brought it to the centre.

Every centimetre of it is now pounced on by crafters.

"It's very structural, very good for wearable arts, or for making the sort of big lanterns and models we do at Junk and Disorderly," says Mr Richards, who is also co-director of Rangiwahia's Junk and Disorderly, environmental artists specialising in large structures and carnival spectacles.)

Obo foam is another product that used to go straight to the dump. It's the leftovers of a durable, closed-cell foam used to make cricket pads and hockey shin pads, and it's gold for a crafter because it can be moulded, folded, glued, painted or left flat.

He would like to make more approaches to companies to get more of their useful waste out of the waste and recycling streams, to be reused through the centre. It just takes a bit of time and imagination to see what can be done with products people think of as rubbish.

"We're great at putting stuff in bins, but we should be looking after our resources better. Recycling costs a bomb ... reduce first, and reuse is the way to go."

Long-term, society's goal should be creating commercial products from reused materials, he says. The centre's taking first steps in this, running up-cycling craft groups.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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