Saturday, February 24, 2024

Transforming plastic waste into wearable art

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Sleepy Eye native Liz Kolbe stands in front of her ReClaimed wearable art display at New Ulm’s Own Fair Trade Art store, 212 Minnesota St. N.

A Sleepy Eye native is helping save the planet, fighting global marine pollution by leading beach cleanup efforts and making jewelry from single-use plastic collected in Thailand. Reclaimed is a project by traditional tattoo artist Liz Kolbe. She spends about half the year on the remote, tropical island of Koh Phi Phi,Thailand. The daughter of Katelyn, a Thailand native, and Mike Mason of Sleepy Eye, she spends the rest of the year with the Masons.

Born and raised in Sleepy Eye, Kolbe was the youth director at Trinity Lutheran Church after her college undergraduate work.

“I was always conscious about picking up trash around Sleepy Eye Lake,” Kolbe said. “Our church stewardship unit included taking youth out to clean ditches and teach them that God created one world for us and we had to take care of it.

“We discussed how trash in southern Minnesota can get into waterways and end up creating problems in the ocean,” she said.

Kolbe’s ReClaimed wearable art is available at New Ulm’s Own Fair Trade Art store, open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday – Sunday at 212 Minnesota Street North. She also sells her art at Ultreya Coffee and Tea in San Diego and on Facebook and Instagram.

Plastic is poisoning the ocean, remaining there for hundreds if not thousands of years, killing marine creatures, spoiling coastline and damaging livelihood, according to A dumptruck load of plastic goes into oceans every minute.

Due to its size and color, animals confuse plastic for food, causing malnutrition and entanglement. 84% of plastic samples contain toxic chemicals.

After earning undergraduate degrees in anthropology and ethnic studies and a masters degree in human rights in Thailand, Kolbe relocated from the busy Bangkok metro area to the white sands, turquoise water and tranquility of Koh Phi Phi Thailand.

Liz did social research on the impacts of labor migration on local people.

Kolbe became aware of other socio-environmental issues facing the world. Kolbe opened a traditional bamboo tattoo studio and continued to fight global marine pollution, repurposing it into wearable jewelry.

Kolbe’s wearable art includes colorful rings and other colorful jewelry.

“Every year, monsoon winds bring an endless amount of marine plastic to the beautiful beaches of southern Thailand,” said Kolbe about her project that recycles marine debris into wearable art.

“While efforts are underway to reduce our dependence on plastics, especially single-use plastics, there is still much that needs to be removed from our oceans,” she added.

Kolbe said large, commercial fishing boats are depleting Thailand fishing, leading to a 2015 European Union ban on Thai seafood.

“Luckily, we vowed to reduce the number of commercial fishing vessels every year, so traditional fishers like my husband can still fish on their home islands,” said Kolbe.

“This is one of the reasons I started my ReClaimed (jewelry) Line, hoping its success can benefit our islanders by providing income and inspiration to other projects using marine debris.”

Kolbe with her husband in his fishing boat in Thailand.

On Phi Phi island, Kolbe, who also speaks Thai, aka Siamese, became a council member and volunteered to work on the Phi Phi Island Preservation and Conservation Team. Her duties included translation work, particularly for tourists and police work.

She opened a tattoo studio on Phi Phi Island and later moved it to a more rural island, Koh Jum three years ago.

“It’s really nice. Half the year, the local population is engaged in traditional livelihoods like working on rubber plantations, raising cattle, small livestock and traditional fishing. My husband fishes in the off season,” Kolbe said. “In the high season when tourists come back, I have my tattoo shop and my husband has a bar. It’s not the constant hustle and bustle.”

Kolbe said the COVID-19 epidemic really shut down Thailand but it gave her a chance to see the beach debris during the low tourism season that has monsoon winds with heavy rain from May to October.

“I gathered kids for beach cleanups and found rope and household trash. Lots of cheap, disposable toys that people leave behind,” said Kolbe. “When freak hurricanes come, lots of landfill trash will wind up in the and on the beach.”

Kolbe said most small island communities without government agencies are forced to burn recovered plastic, which creates harmful fumes for residents, wildlife and the rest of the environment.

She said reclaimed jewelry proceeds go straight back into local environmental projects.

“The hope is to continue to create and market this art, turning it into a thriving business that can employ women with limited opportunities on the islands of southern Thailand,” said Kolbe.

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