From Trash to Treasure: Zero-Waste Jewelry in Zimbabwe

When we throw something away, it never truly goes away. Once a piece of plastic leaves our hands, we feel no responsibility for it anymore. The plastic that flies out of the back of a dump truck and litters the street, or is shipped overseas to a destination where regulations on what are lax or nonexistent are never thought of as our own — though they often are.

Every piece of plastic ever created still exists.

From now until the future, we must make use of and manage this excess of waste that has plagued all corners of the world (including the bottom of the Marianas Trench).

And while we see this waste as trash, others see a base for their artwork. Some people, like a group of Zimbabwean artists, are turning pieces of colorful discarded plastic, paper, and glass into treasure.

For centuries, West Africa’s Ghana has been famous for its bead making. The beads have signified cultural events, been traded all across the world, and are still worn today among the trendiest Ghanaian fashion bloggers and celebrities. Recently, a talented expat from Ghana moved to the Hwange region of Zimbabwe and shared his skill of making powder glass beads with a group of Zimbabwean artists, who are slowly mastering the craft of creating beads made from local waste.

To make the glass and plastic beads, the artists sort the plastic and glass by color and break them into tiny pieces. Then, the small pieces of glass are crushed into powder-like particles and poured into a ceramic mold with indents large enough to hold and shape the powder into spheres.

Then, the artist carefully places the ceramic mold into a kiln handmade from clay. To melt powdered glass and turn them into beads, the kiln needs to be able to withstand and maintain a temperature of around 2500°F. This is a tedious job because if the ceramic mold is placed off center, the glass cannot melt properly. Sometimes, beads are knocked out of the kiln or dropped on the floor. The slightest twitch can ruin an entire batch.

After a few minutes, the artist pulls the ceramic mold filled with red-hot glowing orbs of glass and places it onto a flat surface. The glass beads also have a small twig stuck inside of them, that burn away in the kiln to create a hole for the thread. The hole is widened by a sharp metal rod so that the glass can turn from a marble into a wearable piece of jewelry.

Similar beads are made with plastic and accented with different hand-drawn designs.

Though the art collective is still in its start-up phase, the artists have already started building a structure made from sand-filled plastic bottles and reinforced with clay that will soon house their work as an exhibition center.

Nearby, in the village of Dete, another group of artists called the Vukani Project create jewelry made from discarded magazines and colorful paper. The paper is cut into a long triangle, rolled up like a croissant, dipped in acrylic, and strung along thin fishing line. These jewelry pieces are then sold to tourists visiting Zimbabwe’s African Bush Camps and luxury hotels.

True innovation no longer means creating something from mined resource. Rather, it’s crafting things that are beautiful made from the items we already have.

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