While most Kauaians assume the glass from their recycling bins gets recycled, in reality, most is reused instead. Ground down glass is commonly used in anything from water filtration and drainage systems to sand traps.
And then there’s Kauai Recycling for the Arts, an unassuming open-air warehouse on Ahukini Road, past the heliports and near the end of the runways of the Lihu‘e Airport.
Here, to the din of scrambling Navy fighter planes, thumping helicopter rotors and droning commercial airliners, Kathy Cowan, K.C. Grennan and Krysta Shipe methodically ladle, pour, cut and cool molten glass from bottles, jars and windows.
“We take a waste product and close the loop by making it into a sellable product,” said Cowan, executive director of KRA.
“She makes this whole thing happen,” said Grennan, a Honolulu artist on island to use the facilities for the week. “I’m just happy I know Kathy or I couldn’t do this.”
The glass is first heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a furnace, then ladled out, poured into molds and gradually cooled over two days in a 950-degree furnace.
All wearing heavy gloves and protective eyewear, the three women work in tandem. Shipe, a volunteer who Cowan hopes to make a full-time employee, mans the doors to the furnace and kilns. Grennan scoops out the thick, molten glass and pours it. Cowan cuts it with special scissors, first as it comes out of the furnace, then again once the mold is full. It looks like snipping Silly Putty.
Today they are casting glass bricks to be inlaid in a copper gate Grennan is building for a Kailua-Lanikai resident.
“There’s nowhere to do this on O‘ahu,” Grennan, a former University of Hawai‘i student, said. No longer a student, she cannot use the school’s facilities for casting. “The next closest place is Seattle.”
In exchange, Grennan will stay on until Saturday helping Cowan and Shipe create “product” — anything from intricate jewelry and beads to large cast panels and glass-and-concrete stepping stones — to be sold at crafts fairs and galleries around Kaua‘i.
“It covers our overhead and keeps us recycling,” Cowan said. “And it creates educational opportunities.”
Founded with a $400,000 grant from the county’s Economic Development Office, KRA is not only a valuable workshop for island artists but an opportunity to educate residents, keiki and visitors about environmental stewardship — the center processes an estimated 24 tons of glass a year — and art.
Schools and scout troops visit often, learning the basics of glass casting, painting, etching, bead-making and mosaics, and the winter class schedule gets underway Saturday with an all-day glass-blowing workshop.
Cowan said visitors more than anyone love an adventure off the beaten tourist path that not only enlightens but also sends them home with homemade souvenirs.
“It’s a good rainy day activity,” she said.
Despite its niche popularity, KRA still struggles to make ends meet. The furnace, which runs 24 hours a day when on, was shut off for most of this year because sales and class registrations weren’t covering the $5,600 per month electric bills, let alone other expenses. Cowan and company recently built their own furnace, which lit up in early November and should run through February. And they’re looking to get the most out of those few months.
In addition to the different classes, KRA is offering a new project called “Hands in the Sand,” where casts are made from children’s hand- and footprints, giving proud parents a lasting imprint of their young ones’ formative years.
Classes range from $35 to $95. Call 632-0555 or visit www.kauaiglass.org for more information or to register.