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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Abu Dhabi upcycling workshop gives furniture new life

Noof Al Refaei travels the world teaching people how to turn waste materials into furniture they can sell.
Noof Al Refaei teaches how to repurpose a table by using recycled material to give it a new lease of life. Delores Johnson / The National
Noof Al Refaei teaches how to repurpose a table by using recycled material to give it a new lease of life. Delores Johnson / The National

During the 2011 anti-government protests in Bahrain, Noof Al Refaei offered her countrymen a more peaceful way to express themselves while also preserving the environment.

Instead of using bottles as weapons and old tyres for fires, she offered them an income by hosting workshops where they could learn to turn materials that might otherwise have been used for violence into furniture .

“A lot of the time, those protesters were out there to violently express themselves, so as an alternative, I wanted to try to help them express themselves in a more productive way – make money and help the environment,” said the 33-year-old Bahraini while holding a workshop in Abu Dhabi.

Since then the former lawyer, now a furniture designer, has spent the last six years traveling the world and teaching upcycling to people living in war-stricken and peaceful countries alike.

Ms Al Refaei said war and daily angst drove people to express themselves, so why not let them profit from it while also helping the environment?

She has a permanent studio in Bahrain where she teaches young people the skills to turn rubbish into upcycled furniture. What they make is for them to sell.

“As long as someone is making money, I think the situation gets better,” she said.

“The difference is between a productive expression, and one that is completely destructive.”

The workshop, sponsored by Tadweer and held at the National Theatre of Abu Dhabi, was attended mostly by Emirati women who were surprised to see the transformation upcycling could achieve.

“You can tell that people in the UAE and the organisations are trying to make a difference when it comes to waste,” Ms Al Refaei said. “But we need more in terms of how to get there.”

She said she had always had a problem with throwing things away that could otherwise have been put to use.

“This was a piece of trash 30 minutes ago, now look at it,” one of the Emiratis said.

“There’s really something special in making use of what would have been thrown out. With just a little attention, it can be given new life.”

Repurposing materials and providing tools and skills to protect the environment was the reason why Tadweer held the workshop.

“We are trying to reduce furniture waste and we’re trying to use it for something else,” said Fatimah Al Harmoudi, public awareness officer in Tadweer.

She said it was too easy for people in the UAE to throw out furniture that was only slightly damaged or scratched.

Throwing furniture away will mean it is sent to either landfill or an incinerator, she said.

Studies from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Australian government found that not only does the production of furniture have an environmental cost, so too does the burning and disposing of it.

“It’s a huge waste, especially when you consider that what you’re throwing away, every piece of ‘used furniture’, can be given a new life in a home of people who need,” Ms Al Harmoudi said.

“Noof and what we’re doing here just makes sure that the beauty of the end result matches the beauty of trying to protect the environment in every way we can.”

nalwasmi@thenational.ae