Waste-Free: The Auckland Creatives Doing Their Bit To Alleviate Landfill Guilt

By Ginny Fisher
Tuhirangi Blair from Lucky Dip Clothing. Photo / Babiche Martens

Dump guilt. My latest, greatest anxiety since tasked with clearing out my family’s storage container. The staff at my local tip know my troubled face. Could I have somehow re-used that torn T-shirt? I think, as I heave my flotsam and jetsam into the filthy pit. But I push the thought away.

But we all need to do better because landfills are filling up fast. Recent figures reveal Aucklanders send over 1.6 million tonnes of waste to landfill per year. That’s over one tonne of rubbish for every Aucklander. Wait for it ... that’s enough waste to cover the width of Eden Park and nearly double the height of the Sky Tower.

The fashion crowd is doing its part to change our mindset about upcycled fabrics and with the current obsession with everything vintage, throwing garments away has become passe. Indeed, at New Zealand Fashion Week it was de rigueur to mix the old with the new, both on and off the runway.

The coolest of street-stylers were photographed mixing new designs with their best vintage finds. Designer Kate Sylvester has just launched a Reloved section on her website for those wanting to sell pieces from her previous collections. This, along with a series of debates and panel discussions during Fashion Week, shows that even the bigger players in the local market are taking sustainability issues seriously.

(From left) Joshua Milward and Rose Ackland; Janina Asides wearing vintage, shot by Mark Leedom for Viva’s NZ Fashion Week street style gallery. Photos / Mark Leedom
(From left) Joshua Milward and Rose Ackland; Janina Asides wearing vintage, shot by Mark Leedom for Viva’s NZ Fashion Week street style gallery. Photos / Mark Leedom

Tuhirangi Blair, designer and owner of Lucky Dip Clothing, shows preloved garments can be elevated into high fashion. Last year he started transforming found fabrics into exquisite men’s shirts think deconstructed Comme des Garcons-style dress shirts with a Kiwi twist.

Tuhi studied fashion at AUT and worked for Workshop Denim before a stint in New York with Japanese brand Nepenthes a menswear label with a cult following that often reuses old garments and dabbles in patchwork construction.

Tuhi’s New York experience got him thinking about his own sustainable label. His fabrics are mostly sourced during jaunts to visit family in Northland and from trips down country, stopping at op shops on the way. A vintage tablecloth from Whangarei, old bed linen from Wellington, a drop sheet from Onehunga, anything interesting is fair game.

“Whatever I can find, I’ll make it into a shirt. I never have to worry about shrinkage and the fabrics have such soft handle but great structural integrity.” And, just to be sure, Tuhi employs the rip test. “If I try to tear and it doesn’t rip, I can use it.”

He relies on “pure instinct” when it comes to putting the shirts together, and each shirt is a one off, adding to the appeal of the end product meticulously constructed shirts handmade and sewn by Tuhi.

At around $600 per shirt, these garments are on the pricier side but Tuhi thinks people are prepared to pay for quality and uniqueness. “The price point is dictated by the amount of work involved the detailing and they are actually pretty competitive when you look at the international market for similar items,” he says.

Repurposed fabric will remain the foundation of his brand moving forward, and now he’s receiving fabric donations directly. “There’s a real satisfaction in taking something and giving it a whole new life. I know I’m doing my part, plus it’s a lot more fun.”

Another local label, Rachel Mills makes a portion of her garments from deadstock fabric that is fabrics already in existence that might otherwise be wasted. “I find it’s a good way to inject more colourful fabrics into my collection. The odd piece gets given to me but often I will purchase fabrics that the bigger fashion houses in Europe don’t end up using.”

Rachel hopes larger fashion houses will catch up and she’s seen some evidence of this, with bigger brands like Reformation in the United States that aim to use mostly natural fibres that are rapidly renewable, plant-based and have a potential for circularity.

Upcycling need not be restricted to fashion. Geraldine Tew, founder of The Re-Creators, aims to get you upcycling anything and everything. She started her collective with the aim of upskilling communities via workshops focused on upcycling in engaging and creative ways. From sew-your-own toy sessions to the creation of upcycled flowers and recycled paint workshops, their offerings are suitable for all age groups.

(From left) A look from Rachel Mills; Kate Sylvester’s NZFW show featuring archival pieces mixed with  her autumn/winter 2020 collection. Photos / Supplied, Getty Images
(From left) A look from Rachel Mills; Kate Sylvester’s NZFW show featuring archival pieces mixed with her autumn/winter 2020 collection. Photos / Supplied, Getty Images

Today I’m testing out the power drill 101 workshop, just off Vulcan Lane. Geraldine and her team of recreators are running me through the basics of using a power drill and a jigsaw in order to make a plant holder from an old picket fence. Who would have thought? A few decades ago I would have been trolling these streets for an outfit for a night on the trot clothes probably slowly decaying in a landfill right now.

Geraldine has a background in refugee protection and was previously working for the government before starting the Re-Creators collective. She employs a good number of refugees who, she says, often find it difficult to gain employment on arrival, but have a raft of skills under their belt.

In between instructions on how to change my drill bit, she tells me we really only have 10 years to change the current cycle of waste whereby products “use” stage is surprisingly short before being dumped into landfill.

What we should be aiming for, she says, is a circular economy, one that makes the best use of resources, with products made to last and to be “made and made” again.

In order for this to become reality, “we also desperately need to get big retailers selling upcycled goods”, she explains.

Geraldine is talking about the likes of The Warehouse having lines dedicated to upcycled products, which would help normalise the concept.

“I think people have lost the joy of the creative process and the skills that are required to make stuff. It’s actually not hard at all to make a planter box. The techniques are simple but we’ve stopped doing these things because we’re buying stuff from the $2 Shop,” she laments in her Irish lilt.

The Re-Creator’s children’s workshops have really taken off. They’re offered as after school programmes in west Auckland so far, but she has plans to roll them out across the country.

“Children love it. They don’t get the opportunity to run riot with paint and glue that often. It also teaches them far more than recycling. They’re learning about physics they quickly learn they can’t put a brick on a feather believe me we’ve seen that! And while they’re here, we can talk about the ideas we’re trying to get across.”

However it’s trickier to get these upcycling messages to adults, says Geraldine.

“Children don’t care about brands. Brands are adult ideas, given to us by marketers, so it’s harder to break the buying cycle in adults.”

But Geraldine hopes society will change, and she hopes it will be enough, in time.

Rui Peng, co-founder of Critical Things. Photo / Babiche Martens
Rui Peng, co-founder of Critical Things. Photo / Babiche Martens

Most of us have felt guilt over plastic waste. But Auckland entrepreneur Rui Peng pains over it more than most.

“I’ve become obsessed with solving the big, hairy, plastic beast problem,” he says, and he’s sure it can be done by creating new waste systems for businesses as 83 per cent of plastic waste is commercial.

Rui says each year 252,000 tonnes of plastic goes into landfill in New Zealand and 20 per cent of our landfill is taken up by plastic. Add to this the 2018 Chinese plastic ban, and what we’re seeing is an ever-growing problem.

Rui, an architect by trade, is the founder and director of start-up Critical Things. His goals are two-fold, firstly to tackle New Zealand’s plastic waste crisis by turning it into desirable products and secondly to upskill the underprivileged by creating labour collectives aimed at employing refugees and kids who have slipped out of the school system.

He has seen first-hand the hardship refugees endure. As a first-generation Chinese immigrant, Rui says his parents grew up in poverty and came to New Zealand to start over again.

“My education gives me empathy for the people in the margins and it also empowers me to make a shift.”

Critical Things is off to a rip-roaring start. With large corporate clients like Allied Pickford and many other high-end retailers he can’t reveal, the start-up is empowering companies to take their plastic waste and turn it into profit.

The company produced a run of designer stools and high-end storage boxes for one client and have plans to roll this out for their offices across the country. And for Allied Pickford, they designed and produced the world’s first dolly trolley made from 100 per cent recycled bubble wrap.

Another project involves creating board games from plastic waste for museums and gallery shops. But while Rui is doing his part to solve the problem, he’s quick to add there still needs to be a paradigm shift. “We need to be prepared to pay more for the products we can create through upcycling. We need to sweat for our values.”


  • Donate your old shirts and suits to Fix Up Look Sharp a charity dedicated to clothing men for job interviews. They get to keep their first outfit and are donated another if they get the job.
  • Take an old stone and have it reworked by Auckland jeweller Charlotte Penman who is experienced in restoring heirloom stones.
  • Buy an upcycled skirt made from old Levi's jeans from Jetsetbohemian.
  • Sign up for Asuwere Clothing's monthly clothing delivery after clearing your wardrobe. They'll donate your unneeded items to Fix Up Look Sharp. Their aim after taking your measurements and clothing preferences is to deliver one item per month you'll actually wear, in the colours and fabrics you like. Meaning they don't produce overruns and you won't have a wardrobe full of clothes you won't wear.
  • Companies can sign up for a staff building workshop with the Re-Creators or contact Critical to solve any plastic waste dilemmas.

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