December 1, 2016
Trash into treasure
Katie Johnston is helping a community in Nepal rebuild after an earthquake killed more than 8000 people and levelled countless buildings in April 2015, by turning the broken red clay bricks from their destroyed homes into beaded jewellery.
Terracotta dust coats Katie Johnston’s finger as she picks up another piece of rubble.
“When I heard about the earthquake I was devastated and felt quite hopeless. I didn’t know how to help and that played on my mind because I’d been to Nepal a few years prior and everyone was so kind,” she says.
“Given the nature of my work, I thought about how I could be more empowering in an environmentally-friendly way and what’s a resource that’s abundant there? Rubble.”
Katie partnered with the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) in Nepal, which identified Bocha, a town in north-eastern Nepal, as the community most in need.
“It has the least amount of support and has the skills we need,” she says, “and there are a lot of jewellery makers and pottery makers, so it was the best place for this project to start.”
Katie spent two weeks in Bocha, where she was welcomed by locals who shared their stories and showed her remnants of their family homes, which had been passed down for generations.
“The reconstruction of buildings is highly regulated now to make it earthquake resistant, which is expensive, and they can’t rebuild their traditional homes in the traditional way with local resources because it’s illegal,” says Katie.
Fortunately the EcoBling Shake-It-Up project has thrown the Bocha community a lifeline.
“They can make 10 beads an hour and 80 over the course of the day. They’re being paid $1 per bead – to make $80 in one day there is more than they make in a month, so they’re really happy,” says Katie.
During Katie’s visit to the village, she held a workshop to show the locals how to fashion beads from the broken bricks.
“When I pulled these bricks out they said, ‘They’re broken bricks, they’re rubbish’, but I started chipping away, drilling and sanding it back and made a bead – their faces went from scepticism to amazement.
“They sketch a little house into each bead because they want people to know this was their home and this is going to create their new home. At the moment they’re living in tin sheds in temporary housing at the foothills of the Himalayas.
“There’s a whole symbolism behind it, from the earthquake that destroyed their homes, the rubble has become these beads, which are going to raise the money they need to rebuild their homes.”
The project launched in November and is the first of many within Katie’s five-year plan, all related to upcycling otherwise discarded materials.
They sketch a little house into each bead because they want people to know this was their home and this is going to create their new home. At the moment they’re living in tin sheds in temporary housing at the foothills of the Himalayas.”
Next year, Katie will travel to Kenya, where the locals will be making shoes from car tyres. From each pair sold, Katie will gift a pair to a child from the village.
“They get parasites, called jiggers, that come through the ground into their feet, it’s really horrible. So we’re trying to prevent that while also providing employment opportunities.”
The following year, Katie will visit Bangladesh and India for two other projects.
“We’ll be collecting the plastic out of the Ganges in India and turning it into lace lingerie,” she says, “And in Bangladesh, there is so much factory waste from the clothing manufacturers it can’t fit in landfill, so we’re collecting some of that and working with ex-child brides who will make bags from the discarded material.”
Chatting to Katie over cups of chai tea, tears welling in her eyes as she speaks about these often forgotten communities on the other side of the world, I’m thankful she turned what could have been a low point in her life into an opportunity to help others.
Having conjured up the inspired business idea in the wake of losing her job as a social change consultant, Katie launched EcoBling, a fashionable accessory brand using upcycled materials.
“We’re using different waste materials that would otherwise go to landfill,” says Katie, “and we plant a tree for each piece sold; so far we’ve planted 10,000 and we’re aiming for another 10,000 in December and January.
“I wanted to create positive social change in my own backyard before heading overseas, so also partnered with indigenous artists to burn their art onto the jewellery as a way of celebrating and sharing indigenous Australian culture.
From the earthquake that destroyed their homes, the rubble has become these beads, which are going to raise the money they need to rebuild their homes.”
The result is a range called IndigiBling, featuring artwork from native Australian communities in Cowra, Bateman’s Bay and Eumundi.
Katie makes all EcoBling pieces by hand, which I can attest to, as on the morning of our interview she emerged from her workshop sprinkled in sawdust. But while she’s competent and confident on the tools now, that wasn’t always the case.
“When I made my first piece of EcoBling I used a hand saw because I didn’t know how to use a drop saw and I was so scared of using power tools – they were so intimidating to me,” she says with a laugh.
“I went home to my parent’s farm in central-west New South Wales, and my dad took me to his workshop where he showed me how to chop up stainless steel and posts, and I hit the ground running.”
That she has, already attracting a following in Canada and America, resulting in the invitation to preview 16 bespoke pieces in the runway show at Eco Fashion Week in Seattle last month – ticking yet another item off her bucket list and proving she is putting her favourite quote into action, “The world needs you to move from mundane to mobilised. Carry as many people with you on the way up. The world has plenty to go around”.
That it has.