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Laura Kutner - Trash For Peace
Laura Kutner - Trash For Peace

An Interview with Laura Kutner, founder of Trash For Peace

In spring of 2013 Kutner will be graduating with a Masters Degree in Public Administration.

The objective of trash for Peace is to incorporate the values of resourcefulness, equity and compassion in order to make significant GAINS through Global Awareness, Innovation, Nutrition and Sustainability.

They promote making GAINS by hosting community action days with schools and local organizations incorporating the construction of recycle bins out of plastic bottles and other reused materials as a hands-on, innovative and creative way to teach about the importance of reducing, reusing, and then recycling.

Trash for Peace also partners with local organizations and schools to create a network of sustainability action, especially regarding waste reduction and diversion.   This includes but is not limited to: Building benches out of plastic bottles and trash at Portland State University, arts and crafts using reused materials at community events and festivals, such as the Lake Oswego Arts Festival, and building fences, parks, and greenhouses out of plastic bottles and trash. 

Trash for Peace are collaborating with the Sustainability Leadership Center, the Environmental Club, and the Village Building Convergence (off campus) to build a greenhouse out of plastic bottles. Keep an eye out for bins around campus to drop off your plastic bottle. (There is one by Food for Thought Cafe, one by the Viking Food court in smith, and one in the library.)


1.    Why did you choose to attend Portland State University?
“I am definitely a Northwest girl at heart and after 4 years in southern California I was very happy to come back to Portland. Oregon is just so green and diverse plus there is so much to do. I decided on Portland State after I spoke with a couple of professors who informed me about PSU’s focus on sustainable development. The in-state tuition was very helpful as well.”


2.    Did you receive a scholarship from PSU?
“I was the Peace Corp recruiter which started last year, and that helped pay for a lot of the expenses. I did receive a small scholarship but that was through and outside organization. This year I was awarded a graduate assistant position that paid my tuition. It’s also my ideal job so at this point I always ask myself am I in school to work or am I working to be in school because I love both and they fit so well together.


3.    What has been your favorite memory at PSU?
“I have been really lucky to have an incredible group of friends that I met in my program and we really have been there for each other throughout these 2 years; as well as another group of friends where I work. Having both of those communities (that sometimes overlap) has made this program that much better. I’ve also had a couple of professors that have become mentors to me especially in the field of sustainable development. They are willing to work with you as a student and as a professional whenever you need them to. I can’t even really express how grateful I am for that experience. My advisor Dr. Philip Cooper he is the one that convinced me to join the program and helped me confirm that I wanted to go into this career path.    


4.    Were or are you a member of a school club or organization on campus?
“When I first started I was part of the Student for Sustainability Leadership Council and that led me to the graduate position. I am now on the board of the Public Administration Student Association. I help coordinate activities for our students and cohorts.” 


5.    Can you explain the process of building a classroom out of trash?
The frame is the foundation and it is the same for any structures. The bottles act for instillation. In Guatemala we replace cement block with the plastic bottles because the trash in the plastic bottles keeps a better instillation than air does. Basically you are tying the bottles in between chicken wire that’s attached to the frame and that holds them in place. Then you are putting cement on the sides, so when it’s finished it looks like any other structure.       


6.    Why this gift and why now?
I realized I loved working with communities to empower communities and through that process this project is using trash as a resource. It came about organically through connections with another organization that started this work. Their work fit with the community’s needs and that is how projects are successful. While I was in Guatamala there was a tropical storm that came through and created massive flooding in the community that I was in. All these plastic bottles got caught underneath a bridge when the river swelled which caused even more massive flooding. It was the idea that our waste goes somewhere and in this country we hide it really well. Our waste is something we all have in common and something we all produce to some extent. 
I want to educate how waste is connected to our health, nutrition, safety and well being; but in a fun and creative ways.    

7.    How has your PSU education enabled you to be effective in your professional life?
Timing has a lot to do with success. When I started this non-profit I had no idea what I was doing. This program has directly given me skills to facilitate running a non-profit organization. I can think of how parts of a course have contributed to my ability to run a successful non-profit organization. I also have to thank Dennis Morrow, he is phenomenal. I would leave his classes in a panic because he made me question my choices in a critical way. The program is a good combination of theory and hands on experience. Another unique part of the program is how each course focuses on leadership and what good leadership is.

8.    What is the most interesting part of your career?
Being able to use creativity everyday is so priceless because creativity drives everything. Also being able to work with students is incredible. We know we are having an impact and that makes everything worth it.

The mission of Trash For Peace is to educate people about the importance of reducing, reusing and rethinking how we deal with waste using functional art. My favorite part of the project is that it builds community. Every person has to be involved with it in some capacity. Sustainable development is based on community relationships. If you don’t have a strong community it is harder to locate the other areas that need improving.”

9.    What advice would you give to students wanting to follow in the same path?
Definitely know what you are getting into because non-profits have a weird structure of management. So make sure that a non-profit is the right structure and look at different businesses to see if this structure is good for you and your ideas.