Turning trash into treasure in Papua New Guinea

How an Australian volunteer helped tackle the issue of plastic waste in Papua New Guinea, through a unique sculpture exhibition.

Jessica Lumb took her skills as an artist, curator and events manager to the incredible Port Moresby Nature Park in 2019, pulling off one of the greatest achievements of her career. In her words, here’s Jess’s story.

Jess and Belden POM fish
Australian volunteer Jessica Lumb (left) with Belden Samuel, a university student who assisted Jessica with the sculpture festival, with one of the sculptures made from recycled plastics. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Jessica Lumb, Australian volunteer marketing and events support officer at the Port Moresby Nature Park. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

Plastic pollution is an issue all across the world but it’s a really big issue in Papua New Guinea, especially in Port Moresby, as there are limited recycling facilities.

When it rains, the rubbish on the ground blocks up the drains and all the streets flood, and waste gets washed into the ocean.

My first big objective on my assignment was a sculpture festival at the park called the ‘BSP Trash to Treasure Sculpture Festival’. The goal was to educate park visitors on the issues of plastic pollution and waste management.

Belden POM story
University student Belden Samuel with one of the sculptures of a jellyfish, made from recycled plastics. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Belden Samuel and Jessica Lumb. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

Our aim was to try and change people’s mentality about rubbish, and make them aware of how much waste is generated in Port Moresby. We wanted to inspire visitors to make good choices – by choosing products that either have less plastic packaging or that have packaging that is possible to recycle in PNG.

We wanted people to rethink their rubbish, and what else they can do with their waste, rather than just throw it away.

I spent four months collecting rubbish from around Port Moresby. We did two big community clean-ups at Ela Beach – the main beach in town. I worked with some community groups who do voluntary rubbish clean-ups, running awareness sessions and got waste from them.

I worked with schools, then they collected rubbish for me and sorted out the plastics. We worked with some of the big hotels and did a call-out on social media. A lot of people brought their plastic waste to the park, so we became a mini recycling centre.

In the end we got so much waste – too much in fact! But that meant we had a good selection to build the sculptures from.

— Jessica Lumb

We engaged a local artist who works with recycled metal and likes this concept that everything can be reused. He built big basic steel sculpture frames of different marine animals - we wanted the sculptures to reflect how plastic waste affects marine animals in particular.

I worked with a professor at the University of Papua New Guinea, who helped me source volunteer students who started attaching all the rubbish to the sculpture frames.

Once all the rubbish was in the park we had volunteers come in and just clean everything. They devised a system of washing, rinsing, soaking and scrubbing, and then they sorted it all into different types of plastics.

Jess and Belden snail
Belden Samuel and Jessica Lumb with sculpture of a snail made from recycled plastics. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Belden Samuel and Jessica Lumb. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

Right at the end, we had two weeks until the launch and two animals still to build. I was a bit stressed - and then 11 volunteers turned up, and we managed to just smash out two giant sculptures in two weeks!

It was incredible to see the sculpture festival all come together at the end.

I loved seeing people’s reactions as they discovered the sculptures. Like when they come round a bend and see four giant jellyfish suspended in the trees!

I’m a visual artist and I have a studio back home. I’m always working on different creative projects.

Out of all the projects I’ve ever done, this is the one I am most proud of.

— Jessica Lumb

Because it involved so many people and has had such an impact. We also managed to pull it all off in four months.

The festival ran from 22 June until 31 July 2019. It was meant to end on 14 July, but was extended because it was so popular. We had just over 16,000 visitors to the park in that period.

After the festival, I met two people outside of the park who were heavily impacted by the festival: one started making and selling jewellery from old plumbing supplies lying around his house, giving him an income he hadn't had before; the other a young artist who moved from painting to making collages from rubbish he found on the street, which had strong environmental messages. 

Life in Port Moresby has its ups and downs. I struggled a lot when I first arrived: I didn’t know anyone and it was hard to meet people.

But after a little while I loved it – I developed a really good group of friends and figured out things I could do out of town. There is plenty of good food and places to go and eat out.

The main thing I learnt in Papua New Guinea is that I can do anything! I can figure it out.

— Jessica Lumb

I’ve also learnt a lot about the country and culture, which has been amazing, because PNG is one of our closest neighbours and I knew very little about it before I came.

There are so many cool things you can do that are just out of town, like little islands you can visit and go snorkelling, and hikes in the mountains.

Papua New Guinea has its challenges, absolutely – but it is overall an amazing country: everyone is really warm and friendly.

Jess and Belden bottle
Belden Samuel and Jessica Lumb inside one of the sculptures. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
T2T Public Event 2020
The flyer for the 2020 BSP Trash to Treasure sculpture festival. Supplied: Port Moresby Nature Park

Because of the popularity of the 2019 BSP Trash to Treasure Sculpture Festival, the Port Moresby Nature Park is running the festival again in 2020 – from 4 July to 30 August. This year the festival will be run entirely by staff at the nature park, and there will be seven additional sculptures. For more information go to www.facebook.com/PortMoresbyNaturePark/