By Léo Azambuja
A gifted Kaua‘i artist has been raising eyebrows — and a lot of awareness — by turning trash into elegant treasure.
“I make jewelry and gifts from repurposed, upcycled materials. I collect a lot of plastic; I’ve been really trying to focus on plastics that can’t be recycled,” said Malie Smith, owner of A Gift From Malie jewelry collection.
Despite being made of discarded plastic, Smith’s jewelry is as classy as jewelry gets. She says a lot of people don’t even realize it’s made of recycled plastic, mainly because she crafts her jewelry using a special process that quite often makes it look like glass.
A mother of two, Smith launched her jewelry collection only a few years ago. As a recycling coordinator at Kalaheo Elementary School, she was looking for crafts for the kids, when she came across a website showing how to punch circles out of plastic water bottles and turn them into earhooks.
“I said, ‘I can do that,’ so I just kind of went from there,” she said.
Four years later, her jewelry evolved into a much more complex craft, with a lot of different materials. Some of her earlier work includes cut-up pieces of plastic embossed with designs. From there, she said she started experimenting — something she does a lot — with wire wrapping and all kinds of other shapes and things. She said she may look at earrings on Pinterest or see someone wearing a pair of earrings she likes, and she’ll challenge herself to do a similar design using plastic.
A Gift From Malie customers, she said, are both local residents and visitors.
“I’m starting to get repeat customers,” Smith said, adding her jewelry is sort of a novelty, but people like it because it’s really light weight. “Especially older people, they say they can’t wear most earrings because they’re so heavy, whereas with the plastic they’re really light. So you don’t really notice that you’re wearing them all day.”
Besides being the recycling coordinator at Kalaheo Elementary School, Smith is the school’s PTSA president. And she does recycling education classes in elementary schools and pre-schools around the island.
“I feel we need to teach the kids, from when they’re young, about recycling and how to recycle, because there are a lot of people who just don’t know how to recycle, what plastics to recycle, what bins to put them in,” she said.
The main purpose of her business, she said, is getting people aware of how much plastic we are using and how much of it can’t be recycled. The bulk of her raw material is plastic that Kaua‘i is not equipped to recycle, such as clamshell plastic, number-five plastic, etc. A lot of these plastics — and also the ones that can but are not recycled — end up in landfills and in the ocean. It can take 500 years for plastic to break down, Smith said. Even then, it doesn’t break down completely, it just gets smaller and smaller until it becomes microplastic.
“It’s in 92 percent of the water; everywhere, our drinking water, tap water, everything. And so I get plastics and I make things with them,” Smith said.
She gets her plastic either from stuff she buys, from friends who may save her some plastic, or from some chance encounter.
“If I see something sticking out of a garbage can, I will occasionally grab that as well,” Smith said, laughing. “But everything is cleaned very well before I make it into jewelry.”
A Gift From Malie is certified by the Kaua‘i Made program. It can be found Monday through Saturday, business hours, at Creative Ohana, an artist cooperative in Kalaheo. Smith is usually there Mondays and Fridays. Her jewelry is also available at Koke‘e Museum, and might soon be in a couple different shops on the island.