Turning Trash to Cash

On my last trip home to Sagada, Philippines, I ran a jewellery workshop, turning tourist plastic into earrings. Could it become a local industry?

I’ve been travelling to the mountain village of Sagada, for the last 15 years with my partner Luke, an indigenous Igorot Filipino. 

Apart from its hanging coffins, Sagada is known for its caves, waterfalls, limestone mountains, and hill-tribe atmosphere. Because of its remote location in the Central Cordillera Mountains, it was left relatively untouched by missionaries, resulting in one of the few places in the Philippines that’s preserved its indigenous culture with little outside influence up until the later half of the 20th Century.

Bridget Kennedy Sagada jewellery workshop 1

The first time we drove up to the mountains, it took 13 hours of treacherous driving – up a muddy, twisting, narrow dirt road, whilst detouring around local landslides and trying not to look too closely at the steep drop off the side of the crumbling road.  Once there, to get any mobile reception at all, we had to drive to the top of a specific mountain outside town. 

These days, the roads are paved and it can take as little as 10 hours from Manila. There are mobile towers sprinkled atop the mountains, and along with the influx of tourists to town, has come mountains of single use plastic, plastic water bottles, and excessive development. The rubbish is burnt to keep it under control as the town has no rubbish management facilities, causing toxic fumes.

A few years ago, we purchased a very modest house built in the traditional style, from local pine wood hand milled from trees cut in the nearby forests, and covered with thin sheets of tin. The house once belonged to Uncle Ezra, who runs Sagada weaving and it was used as a weaving workshop. It’s now a very simple eco-homestay which we’ve called ‘The Seedling’.

Bridget Kennedy Sagada jewellery workshop 1

Every time we come back to our ‘home away from home’ we hold small free workshop and skill share for the local community. We’ve held hot composting workshops, and coiling workshops making baskets out of old rags and discarded plastic. We also showed locals how to build a ferro-cement rainwater tank, one of the first in the village.

Bridget Kennedy Sagada jewellery workshop

Last trip, I brought along some of my jewellery hand tools to teach a beginner’s jewellery and I ran a workshop making jewellery from some of the trash that’s been generated by the expansion of the town due to the exponential influx of tourists and the increasing use of plastics.

I had a couple of regular attendees – Gawani, a poet, environmental activist and local business woman, who runs Gaia, the only vegan cafe in town; and Bogan who manages the family organic farm, as well as a few newbies. One of them Rose-Ann, a local weaver, who I later visited in her home where she had her workshop and looms. 

In the village, no one had made jewellery before. 

Bridget Kennedy Sagada jewellery workshop 2

There was much laughter and brainstorming about how they could take up this craft during the rainy season, when there were few tourists to keep them busy. They mentioned that whilst there were many souvenirs in Sagada, none were made locally and they loved the idea of converting trash to cash! 

Whilst the workshop was only a few hours, I hoped that it might plant a creative seed or two in their minds. I donated some of my tools to them and wrote down a list of all the tools they would need to keep going with their new craft. 

Bridget Kennedy Sagada jewellery workshop

A few days later I bumped into Gawani at a local tribal festival. She was still full of energy and ideas and had already researched purchasing the tools on Amazon. She was keen to learn more and for me to give a lecture on contemporary jewellery. This will have to wait until the next time we take the long and winding journey up the mountains. I now have a few new Facebook friends and look forward to seeing what they make of their new crafting skills.

This article was published in Ekko 16/04/2019 –