New Portland nonprofit turns trash into fun, durable projects

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: NICK FOCHTMAN - Trash For Peace founder Laura Kutner puts the finishing touches on one of the nonprofits signature trash bins.Wherever you are right now, take a look around. Chances are, you’ll see a plastic bottle nearby.

Laura Kutner would like you to stop seeing that plastic bottle as trash. Stop thinking of it as recycling even. Start thinking of it as a durable good — a long-lasting, modular component to just about any kind of furniture you need.

“Plastic is actually extremely hard to recycle,” Kutner says. “It takes much less energy for us to drill a hole in it and make something out of it than to truck it to the recycling center, chop it into little bits, ship it to China, process it into something else, and then ship it to consumers.”

And that’s just for the plastic that is recycled. According to a 2011 study by Columbia University’s Earth Engineering Council, most Americans don’t even bother. More than 85 percent of plastics just sit in a landfill.

In developing countries, the issue is even worse.

It was the mountains of plastic trash littering the streets of Guatemala that gave Kutner her first idea to make something useful from old bottles. She spearheaded a process of building schools there, using wire framing, cement and plastic bottles that children collected and stuffed with plastic trash. A partner organization has since built 25 of these durable and well-insulated schools in Guatemala. In the process, communities came together to rid their town of plastic trash that clogs their streets and waterways, and causes real damage during floods and hurricanes.

Bringing it home

When the Portland native returned home from her Peace Corps mission and got a job at the Forest Heights Starbucks, Kutner was appalled at how many people were just throwing away what she had come to see as very useful plastic. So on Earth Day 2011, she and her friends made a recycling bin for the coffee shop out of old, clear-plastic Starbucks drink cups.

It was a seed that grew into a new Portland nonprofit, Trash for Peace, which formally incorporated last August.

Trash for Peace’s core group of 14 volunteers has made about 50 recycling bins out of reused plastics, wood, computer wires and bicycle components, boosting recycling rates wherever they are placed.

Trevin Miller, owner of Mr. Green Beans coffee in North Portland, displays his Trash for Peace bin at the Mississippi Avenue Street Fair each year. It’s easy to spot and encourages more recycling, Miller says. “A lot of people ask where it came from.”

Many people have advised Trash for Peace to copyright its bin design, Kutner says. “But we don’t want to do that. We want people to take our bins and make them their own.”

So Trash for Peace put up the plans on its website, for all to share.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: NICK FOCHTMAN - Kids play Trashy Bowling at a Trash For Peace booth.Working with schools

For now, Trash for Peace works primarily with local schools, using a curriculum that teaches children about plastic waste through a hands-on bin project and other fun activities.

Parkrose High School teacher Ally Packer led a two-week unit on plastics for her English language development classes, culminating in collecting bottles and building recycle bins.

“We had a lot of really good conversations about what plastic is and how to recycle it,” Packer says. “It’s such a neat opportunity for the kids to learn about plastic and sustainability, and to be able to teach their peers.”

At the end of the year, almost all of her students mentioned building the bins as one of their favorite lessons.

In addition to its free bin designs and curriculum for teachers, Trash for Peace has prepared recycle bin kits from 100 percent reused materials to get teachers started right away. As the nonprofit works steadily on fundraising and finding bin sponsors, each bin kit is offered free to schools. Teachers need only direct their students to find plastic bottles, which shows them how ubiquitous the bottles are.

Businesses pay a suggested donation of $200 to sponsor a bin at a school and then receive either a bin for themselves or a consultation from Trash for Peace experts on reducing waste.

Trash for Peace also is working with Portland State University students. Last fall, the group brought to campus all the materials to build two coffee tables and two recycling bins out of plastic bottles.

“It was a very exciting event,” says Heather Spalding, PSU sustainability leadership and outreach coordinator.

The new, more-visible recycling bins at the Student Resource Center led to a big decrease in the number of water bottles thrown in the trash, Spalding says.

“Recognizing that you can make something new out of reused materials just opens your eyes,” she says. “Creating something of value from something that would be thrown away, it’s a whole different perspective.”

Issue coming of age

Cheryl Lohrmann, founder of the local nonprofit Create Plenty, says she’s glad a strong group like Trash for Peace is emerging in Portland to talk about the reusability of plastics. Her group makes quilt squares from plastic waste, to create awareness and advocate solutions to the plastic waste problem.

“I’m really excited because I think it means the issue is coming of age,” Lohrmann says.

When she started Create Plenty in 2007, she had to work hard to educate people about what a bad thing plastic trash was. “But now when you talk to people, they’re like: ‘Oh, the plastic garbage patch in the ocean.’ You don’t have to tell them about it.”

Both groups hope to focus more on reducing the amount of plastics consumed in the first place. Kutner tries to be vigilant about buying things that contain plastic, but finds that isn’t so easy. “If you buy anything from the store, you always have some kind of plastic in there.”

So, Kutner says, just keep your empty plastic bottles by the sink, stuff clean plastics in and reseal them.

In no time at all, you could be making your own long-lasting furniture out of stuff you used to consider trash.

Shasta Kearns Moore, online at, is a writer, blogger and author living in Canby.

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