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Ninna Larsen of Reground
Photograph: Reground

Future Shapers: Ninna Larsen, who is changing the way we deal with waste

What if things like coffee grounds and soft plastics could find new life outside of landfill?

Cassidy Knowlton
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Cassidy Knowlton
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Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria), Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoriato help us identify the people and organisations changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In sustainability, one such person is Ninna Larsen, founder and director of Reground.

Not to be stereotypical, but there's a reason Melbourne is considered the coffee capital of Australia. But all of those flat whites and lattes generate a ton of waste in the form of spent grounds, which end up clogging up landfill. When Ninna Larsen was working as a barista at Padre Coffee in Brunswick East, she began separating out the coffee grounds from the rest of the rubbish. What she discovered horrified her.

"We bought just a normal 20-litre wheelie bin, which is a standard council bin, but that bin just kept filling up really, really fast," she says. She and Padre regulars started talking about what could be done with the coffee grounds so as to not dump those litres and litres of waste into landfill. Larsen wheeled the bin down to nearby CERES Community Environment Park and asked if the team there could use the coffee grounds as compost for the community garden. CERES was thrilled to get high-quality organic waste to put on garden beds.

That was the beginning of Reground, which formed as a way to put coffee grounds to good use. "The conversation around using waste as a resource became really top of mind," she says. "We just started really brainstorming around, OK, could we start a network of community gardens and home gardeners that could use this resource? And then taking all the coffee out of the landfill stream, where it would go at most cafés."

The initiative was an enormous success, growing from six to 60 cafés in the first year. The concept was simple: cafés put their coffee grounds and chaff (the outside husk of the bean) into a clean separate bin, which Reground collects and distributes to community gardens to use in compost. 

"We're still very much rooted in the story of turning waste into a resource. That is our vision: to ultimately create a waste-free community. So we're always working with the community, people that live in the community and use community spaces. And we all do, if we live and work in a city, for example."

Reground now also collects soft plastics from cafés to recycle them, but its remit is now far larger than just working with Melbourne cafés to reduce their contribution to landfill. During the last year the organisation had to shift its mission slightly, as many cafés were no longer open or could not afford to participate in the program. 

"We now have a second arm, which is our consultancy," says Larsen. "And that's really grown so much, especially last year during lockdown. We did a hard pivot, and now it makes up as much work for us as the collection. So we work with waste avoidance and waste minimisation projects to work towards that mission, the vision of a waste-free community."

Larsen says the key to achieving that goal is to reduce the amount of unnecessary materials people buy in the first place, rather than focusing solely on recycling. "Soft plastics came because for a lot of our hospitality venues that we were collecting coffee and chaff from, their second-biggest stream, the material they had the most often, was soft plastics. It's not the same story as with the coffee, because we can't take that back to community gardens and community members. So what we really do there is do a lot of education with our businesses we collect from on how to avoid it in the first place. We're still collecting it and using it hyper-locally we say we have a mission to keep the waste within 30 kilometers of where it's produced. We work with some the most progressive soft plastics recyclers here in Australia. But it's a very, very, very tricky story, it's much more complex than the coffee is, because there's a whole supply chain there that is flawed."

She points to a project Reground did with Uber, collecting the packaging that UberEats drivers' delivery bags came in. Not long after Reground started recycling those soft plastics, Larsen and her team talked to Uber to ask its supplier to stop packaging delivery bags at all.

"They did that, and then they didn't have any soft plastics. So now we have lost a client, but the environment has won, because that's exactly what we want. We want them to not use the plastics in the first place," she says. 

She says consumer awareness of what exactly we are buying and how to minimise its impact on the planet is key to solving the problem. "I really think that becoming more aware of what you are buying that becomes waste is the first step." Reground runs waste audits for people to examine the contents of their fridges and pantries to reconsider how much packaging they really need. "A lot of people talk about it as like their mind just expanding, it's like, 'Wow, my lifestyle, the way I shop, the way I eat, it creates so much waste'."

Ultimately, Larsen says considering how we shop and eat and the way we process our waste will make us a happier, more connected society. "I ultimately think that true happiness comes from caring. So if we can start to make things visible, whether it's how we grow food or how we process waste and how we shop and who we impact through our shopping, if we can make that all visible on a local scale in Melbourne, then I think we'll just start to see our community thrive. We will have stronger connections with each other, more ways to engage with each other. That's not just via our phones, but in actuality in our communities. And I think that will truly create happy, healthy people and a happy, healthy planet."

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