From Trash To Treasure

Trash gets a new lease of life as upcyclers churn out stylish bags, quirky lamps and scented soaps

Published: 22 February 2018, Text by: Carolyn Hong, Photos: SooPhye

Green activist and landscape architect Carolyn Joan Lau describes her studio as being “one step away from a rubbish tip!” But that depends on how you see it. Put any sort of trash into her creative hands, and it becomes treasure. A plastic jerry can is transformed into a quirky rhino lampshade, drink packets become a stylish purse, and cereal boxes morph into head-turning necklaces.

Lau is one of many Malaysians working to make something out of trash. They aim to divert the trash from the landfills, and as importantly, they hope to inspire people to think about trash, whether to reduce or reuse it. It just takes imagination.


Lau, 53, and trash have had a working relationship dating back three decades. Then, she was a young designer creating theatre sets on a frugal budget. Discarded items became her go-to source of material. “I had always liked to make things with my hands, and I find it more inspiring to work with found material and to make art with a purpose,” she said. Thus, began her life-long love for trash.

From household trash, she conjured up stylish lamps made with the tiny white straws from probiotic drink cartons, devised perfectly balancing hanging mobiles from school books, and made tubby coin boxes from food supplement bottles.

Over the years, Lau has become skilled in seeing beyond the immediate use of any item. In her eyes, acupuncture needles are flexible steel wires, ballpoint pens are useful plastic tubes, and cereal boxes good quality paper with designs. “Someone was paid to design all this packaging, and the material is often good quality,” she said.

Her pieces, which are both works of art for their beauty and craft for their utility, are sometimes sold to raise funds and awareness for causes that appeal to her, such as stray animals. Some years ago, she carved rescued styrofoam trays into delicate Christmas ornaments shaped as cats and dogs to raise money for an animal shelter. “Once I find a purpose to work for, the brain gets moving,” she said.

Having done so many projects over three decades, Lau has now found a home for them under her newly launched ‘Sampah Menyampah’ campaign for trash reduction. Sampah means trash in Malay, while menyampah expresses a feeling of disgust.

Through this campaign, which currently targets disposable drink straws, Lau has found a space to share her ideas and know-how through talks and workshops. She jokes that the Internet has shared much with her, and she’s now sharing that back with anyone interested to learn!


Chia Wen Shin, 26, used to see her mother storing cooking oil in containers after frying food. The oil would be used a couple more times but eventually, it had to be thrown away. But there was nowhere to throw it away safely.

“Paper, aluminium, plastics … we can find recycle bins everywhere. But there is none for cooking oil,” she said. It prompted her to scour the internet for solutions. She found that as oils are the basic ingredient for soaps and candles, cooking oil can also be used to make them, and she began to experiment. That was for a university project three years ago but after graduating, she turned it into a social enterprise called Green Yards.

Since April 2016, she has collected 4,000 kilogrammes of cooking oil from Muslim-friendly restaurants, and turned her house into a soap-making lab. Chia said before being made into soaps or candles, the oil is first sieved through a micron filter that traps everything, even something as fine as a strand of hair. Most of the soaps are sold as corporate gifts.

Chia has since been joined by her childhood friend, Kenzie Chan, also 26, with whom she had roamed their neighbourhood as children. Now, they drive around together to pick up used cooking oil, and personally make every bar of soap and every candle. They also collect used household oil dropped off at environmental organisation EkoKnights’ premises in Kuala Lumpur, to be sent to a bio-diesel manufacturer. Chia said their main aim has always been to recycle used cooking oil safely.

Looking at their delicate soaps, it’s hard to imagine that they had once been used to fry fish!


Felt carpets and advertising banners, seatbelts and preloved kimonos. Those were their previous lives, but these items now live on as high-fashion bags made by Biji-biji Initiative. Biji-biji is a social enterprise that champions sustainable living, and that includes reusing waste creatively.

Norashahera Haleem, 31, who heads the fashion arm of Biji-biji, said it all began when one of the four co-founders was asked to make 1,000 innovative and environmentally sustainable bags for an event. They came up with the idea of turning event banners into tote bags that could be unfurled to become vertical planters. It was an immediate hit, earning them funding to launch Biji-biji in 2013.

Seatbelts were their next project, having discovered that rejected seatbelts were thrown away in huge rolls. But that proved to be challenging as seatbelts are long and narrow, and not easy to stitch together. And since they only take discards, they get a random selection. It took a while to figure out how to stitch the belts together, but the team eventually found a way, turning them into sleek bags that are now their signature product.

But not all materials are hard to work with. The team recently received 500 kilogrammes of kimonos from a manufacturer in Japan, rejected for being outdated or with defects. It was like receiving half a tonne of treasure. The intricately designed fabric was perfect as highlights for the seatbelt bags, while plainer pieces became the lining. The team also came up with a new range of super-stylish clothing artfully incorporating the kimono.

“Sustainability is the core element of our business,” said Norashahera. “We have a unit which scrutinises our designs closely while they are still on paper. It must have at least 60 percent sustainable material.” Thanks to the kimono, some of the bags have reached 90 percent upcycled material content.

Having had many requests for classes, Biji-biji opened Me.reka Makespace at the Publika shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur in November. From sewing to woodworking, everyone can now learn how to upcycle stylishly.


Upcycling can seem daunting but these upcyclers say it is all about being willing to experiment. Working with trash is a challenge and their inspiration and mission as well, and they hope to inspire more people to do the same.

© 2018 Malaysia Airlines Berhad (1116944-X)
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