War on waste: Recycling denim into paper

In a small studio in Canberra, artisans are recycling unwanted denim jeans and jackets by turning them into paper.

Paperworks is a not-for-profit social enterprise that uses the art of papermaking to engage marginalised people and those with special needs.

"We were using cardboard and recycled paper in the first few sessions but it was unforgiving and had lacklustre results," chief executive Susanna Pieterse said.

"We started looking into using textiles and became aware of the great need to recycle textiles — more than 80 per cent of denim actually ends up in landfill.

"We found the longer fibres of textiles helped the paper hold together better.

"We now only use recycled textiles because recycled paper can go into mainstream recycling anyway."

How denim becomes paper

Two pairs of jeans can make about 40 sheets of paper.

To do that, the denim is cut into 1.5cm x 1.5cm pieces (which takes about four hours of cutting), soaked overnight and then put in a Hollander beater for up to six hours.

"It literally shears the blocks of textile apart into a really stringy pulp, very soft to the touch, opaque," Ms Pieterse said.

"Then you use a mould and deckle to make a sheet of paper by dipping it into the vat of pulpy water ... and then lay that wet sheet on top of a felt and the paper is left to dry, which can take about a week."

Paperworks used to run an annual jeans drive but currently has a full stock of denim.

"We're really at the stage where we'd prefer people to buy the product to give us a reason to continue doing the recycling instead of donating more jeans," Ms Pieterse said.

Denim paper turned into cards and seed tiles

Paperworks employs three part-time artisans from disadvantaged backgrounds who make the paper.

Sarah May Sadler, 57, is one of the artisans who has been crafting paper products for five years.

"It's very relaxing, it's quite meditative; with a lot of the things that we do they're kind of repetitive and you can sort of meditate as you're going along," she said.

Allyscha Thomson, 24, started making paper two years ago after her former school teacher suggested the idea.

"I like the feel of it [the pulp] when it's in the water, and making paper from scratch is what I like to do," she said.

The denim paper is crafted into cards, notebook covers and seed tiles.

"We make paper leaves that are seeded with vegetables to encourage children to take an interest in healthy foods and eat what they grow," Ms Pieterse said.

"We're hoping that some schools will take this up as a fundraiser instead of the annual chocolate drive."

Recycling art and craft supplies

Denim is not the only thing Paperworks is recycling.

Volunteers are repackaging and selling donated art and craft supplies from the Paper and the Works shop at the back of Canberra's re-use facility The Green Shed.

"It is entirely volunteer-based and we're able to use the funds that come from that project to actually continue the recycling at Paperworks," Ms Pieterse said.

"We do have a longer-term vision though of being able to offer workplace opportunities there for students with special needs."

But to do that, Paperworks needs more volunteers.

"We are really grateful to still be here since 2009; there are many times when we thought we wouldn't be around and I think it's only thanks to the Canberra community's support over all these years," Ms Pieterse said.

Canberrans can donate art and craft supplies to the Paper and the Works project by clearly marking the items as "For Paperworks" and dropping them off at The Green Shed.