Plastic trash from the Philippines’ Taal Volcano will soon be traveling thousands of miles to the City of Lights, all dressed up as chic upcycled furniture.
Interior designer and eco-activist Wilhelmina “Willie” Garcia will join a select group of new and emerging design talents from all over the world who will showcase their innovative creations — everything from fashion to furniture to gastronomy — at the Paris Design Week on September 8-16.
Garcia, co-founder of JunkNot Eco Creatives, will bring her bestselling Bangko stool to the Now! Le Off exhibition, one of the highlights of the design event, which will be held in 180 venues across Paris. The Bangko will also serve as her entry to the Rado Design Prize 2017.
“There was a call for proposals early this year. I submitted, and I got accepted. I’m really excited,” Garcia said.
After Paris, her Bangko will be off to Belgium for the eco-festival Conscienza 2017.
Dubbed by a design magazine as one of the “Creatives to Watch,” Garcia is a familiar figure in the country’s upcycling community. She is often tapped by local government units and non-government organizations to teach poor communities various means of livelihood.
Her social enterprise, JunkNot Eco Creatives, has been around since 2009 and is known among environment advocates and expats, but as a business, it was merely breaking even, she said.
“I used to make bags from plastic waste but it was difficult because I relied completely on the communities, and they only work when they have time. It affected the production flow,” she said.
“I could not compete; it seemed everyone was doing the same things using plastic waste — bags, purses, accessories, etc. Then I thought, ‘I’m an interior designer, why am I competing in fashion?’ So I decided to try furniture. I think I’m the first to make chairs using plastic waste,” said Garcia, who incorporates green elements in her interior design.
JunkNot’s vision is to “find creative ways to transform regular plastic waste into functional furniture pieces while providing livelihood to a community and protecting the environment.”
The Philippines is the third biggest ocean polluter in the world, releasing 521,000 tons of plastic waste into bodies of water every year, according to a 2015 report by Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. JunkNot hopes to do its part to change that.
“I wasted a lot of money in the bag business. It was not profitable but I did it anyway because I was happy helping communities and I wanted to help address the country’s plastic waste problem,” Garcia said.
The new furniture line is poised to change JunkNot’s future.
In September 2014, Garcia was accepted into an artisan residency program in Morocco, where she was to stay for a month to learn or perfect a craft. She received support from the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, and the Metrobank Foundation.
Garcia went into the program with the intention of learning to incorporate leather in her upcycled plastic-waste bags.
“My friends have been telling me to focus because I was doing all kinds of things — teaching at St. Scholastica’s, doing interior design for restaurants and residences, conducting workshops, making lights from bottles, making fashion accessories from scrap, making bags… I was all over the place,” she said. “I knew I needed to focus but on what?”
It was in Morocco, alone in her 3 m x 3 m studio in the remote town of Sefrou, that Garcia found herself finally calm, the zillion thoughts that usually run through her head all at once silenced by the emptiness of being away from home.
“I was just sitting there, staring at the white walls, thinking, ’What am I going to do? Why am I even here?” she said. “And then it dawned on me: enough with the bags already; I am going to make a chair.”
Garcia commissioned an artisan to build a frame for a stool while she went about town, picking up discarded foil packaging for her final project as a program resident.
“The locals would laugh at me because I was picking up trash. They were telling me how dirty it was. They called me ‘Manila.’ I told them I did this in my country, too,” she said.
When Garcia finished her silver stool using plastic waste, her teachers and fellow residents were amazed at the way trash was transformed. They were inspired to do a river cleanup with the community, and from what they gathered, Garcia made another chair that she left with her teachers.
“I’ve made chairs before for my brother’s restaurant in Davao, but I used a different technique then, which took too long. It was not refined,” she said. “It was in Morocco that I was really able to focus and experiment with the prototypes of chairs.”
A year later, in October 2015, JunkNot officially launched its line of upcycled chairs at the Manila FAME.
For its raw materials — plastic waste that is either shredded or roped — JunkNot partnered with the women of Barangay Alas-as in San Nicolas, Batangas. These were the same people Garcia had trained early 2015 as part of a project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
San Nicolas, a fifth-class municipality along Taal Lake, forms part of Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest active volcano.
“When I presented the project to the community, only four women responded. Now, there are more than 60 of them because they saw that the four women were making money,” Garcia said.
She taught the women to make ropes from big foil packaging, such as bags of chips, and to cut the smaller plastic packaging, such as candy wrappers, so they can be used as fillers for chairs.
These raw materials are bought and taken to Garcia’s workshop/store at her family’s home in Binan, Laguna, where workers from other communities weave them to make stools, tables, dividers, table napkin holders and organizers.
“There’s no treatment needed for the discarded waste. We just clean the materials. They’re very strong. We obtained a certification from the DOST on the tensile strength of the ropes,” Garcia said.
Since she started JunkNot’s furniture line, Garcia has done an entire office in Alabang using pieces made from plastic waste. She has also been commissioned to do the Negosyo Centers of the Department of Trade and Industry in Laguna.
Aside from the income they make from selling raw materials to JunkNot,the community in Taal Volcano also receives five percent of the profit from sales.
“Our business model is still evolving but there’s definitely profit-sharing with the community. That’s why I keep reminding them that we are partners. If they produce low-quality raw materials, it will be hard for me to sell the furniture pieces, which means low income for them,” she said.
JunkNot’s pieces can be found at the Ayala Museum and in American Women’s bazaars. JunkNot is also a regular at the artisan village of Manila FAME, under DTI-Laguna.
Next month’s trip to Europe will be a first for Garcia, who is getting back on her feet after losing both parents recently: her mom passed away in November last year and her dad just last June. She was caretaker to them both.
“It was hard to focus last year but I’m starting over again, slowly,” she said.
Paris sounds like the perfect place to begin again. ###
*A version of this story appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s business page on Aug. 27, 2017. Unless otherwise stated, all photos are courtesy of JunkNot Eco Creatives.