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Carleton University Stories - Upcycling Business

By Dan Rubinstein Photos by Caleb Groeneweg

When she was an Industrial Design student at Carleton University, Heather Jeffery had a series of retail jobs to pay the bills and was dismayed by how much perfectly useable material — shelving units, furniture with small scratches, dinnerware sets with one broken plate — her employers would throw into the dumpster.

After graduating in 2014, and working for a store in Ottawa while looking for a job in her field, Jeffery rescued eight display cases that were destined for the landfill and repurposed them into eye-catching cinema-style light fixtures that she was able to sell for hundreds of dollars.

That project gave her an idea, and a way to combine her twin passions — sustainability and creative design.

Over the last three years, Jeffery has been steadily growing her manufacturing company, Re4m, building furnishings and displays for local businesses out of reclaimed material to the point that she has recently been able to move into a 1,400-square-foot workshop in a small industrial pocket in the city’s Alta Vista neighbourhood, outgrowing her original squirrel-infested space in a condemned auto shop. Re4m revolves around “upcycling,” which Jeffery defines as “taking something that would otherwise be discarded and transforming or manipulating it into something with a new purpose.”

She gets donated material from construction sites, retailers and private citizens, everything from pipes, end cuts of plywood and two-by-fours to antique milk jugs, vintage car mufflers and old barn windows. To date, she has made 80 or so products for about 30 different companies, such as a bar for the Kichesippi Beer Co. and sandwich boards for the Happy Goat Coffee Company, as well as exhibit infrastructure for a national museum and retro home décor for residential clients.

“There are a lot of benefits to being your own boss,” says Jeffery, who works part-time as a graphic designer to supplement her income from Re4m. “You create your own schedule and there’s a bigger sense of fulfillment when you’re doing something you’re passionate about, especially if it’s part of your attempt to have a positive impact on the planet.”

A Passion for Sustainable Design Jeffery, who grew up in Orilla, Ont., started building things, such as treehouses and board games, at a young age. Her father ran a general contracting company, and she learned carpentry skills from him.

“Being able to work with your hands,” she says, “is a dying skill.”

In Grade 6, a career questionnaire identified “industrial designer” as a good fit for Jeffery, who had never heard the term at the time. But it resonated and after high school she enrolled in Carleton’s Industrial Design program because it promised a practical hands-on approach as opposed to other programs that were more focused on aesthetics.

Jeffery loved her university experience and, increasingly drawn toward sustainable design, developed a prototype renewable energy camping fire pit for her final-year thesis project. The heat created by wood fire contained by the device could power a thermodynamic battery, which had a USB port that could be used to charge phones. “I think that Heather is living proof that huge problems like sustainability can be tackled and approached in a localized and entrepreneurial manner with design and innovative thinking,” says Bjarki Hallgrimsson, director of Carleton’s School of Industrial Design and one her professors.

“Heather uses her industrial design education gained at Carleton to make a difference. I know she is passionate about the problem she is solving, but she is also doing it armed with extensive knowledge of materials and manufacturing and I think she is driven by a community- and people-oriented approach.

“We can all take inspiration from her and her unwavering professional and positive ‘can do’ attitude. As her idea grows and scales, the end results could be quite impressive in terms of overall impact.”

Jeffery was hoping to become a camping equipment designer after graduation — she had done an internship with a Winnipeg-based outdoor product company while at Carleton — but wanted to stay in Ottawa. When she couldn’t find a job that was a good fit, she made her own.

Educating Consumers Jeffery started building items to sell in the living room of her small apartment before moving onto her first leased workshop. Because most of her materials are free — she typically only has to buy screws, glue and paint, and she does all her own labour — the cost of growing Re4m has been manageable. Almost all of her interactions with clients lead to word-of-mouth referrals that generate potential projects and commissions.

“I’m figuring things out as I go,” says Jeffery, whose studio is stocked with supplies, tools and pieces in progress, with a loft office nook above.

She’s also thinking about the big picture — for instance, the fact that Ottawa has approved a new dump and recycling facility east of the city that will process up to 450,000 tonnes of waste annually over the next 30 years. The controversial landfill will divert between 43 and 57 percent of that waste; the rest will go to the dump.

Moreover, Jeffery says that Ottawa trucks about 400,000 tonnes of industrial, commercial and institutional waste to upstate New York State every year for disposal in private landfills. “Part of what I’m hoping to do through Re4m is educate consumers,” she says, “about making more responsible decisions when we purchase and dispose of things.”

To help raise awareness, Jeffery has held open houses at her workshop and has hosted with local high schools on field trips so students can learn about recycling and responsible consumption.

“Climate change motivates me,” she says. “The amount of waste going into our landfill and into our oceans is something that I think we all should be concerned about. I feel a sense of responsibility as a consumer and I want to help make a difference.”

Sometimes, however, when she’s not thinking about the challenges facing the planet, or the challenges of running her own business, Jeffery will come to her workshop to chip away at her own personal upcycling projects. She’ll build light fixtures for her apartment, or a TV stand, or spice racks.

“Sometimes I come here,” she says, “because I just love to build things.”

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