From fine art to furniture, Leonardo salvages treasure from other people’s trash

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Leonardo Urbano’s Sydney apartment is decorated with an array of vintage items, many salvaged from municipal cleanups. From sewing machines to sideboards, he has worked hard to restore them to their former glory.
Boiling a pot of coffee on the stove, the migrant from Italy remembers finding this precious coffee machine abandoned on the side of the road.
“At first I wasn’t sure what it was. Then I saw a flash of metal and realized it was a coffee machine,” he told SBS.
“It just needed a cleaning, it was in perfect condition. All the parts were there.”

In fact, the Atomic coffee machine was made in Milan, Italy in the 1960s and is now worth up to $1,000.

The coffee machine recovered from Leonardo Urbano Credit: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

Australia produces 76 million tonnes of waste each year, and only half is recycled.

Leonardo is known as the “Trash Lawyer” and is one of a growing number of people working to reduce the amount sent to landfill. He has recovered hundreds of items since emigrating from Italy to Australia in 2014.
“I fight for the right of trash to live another day,” he says.
Among the many treasures, a painting by three-time finalist Archibald.
“I saw it and really liked it. When I got home I googled the [artist’s] name, because I could see that it was an original”, explains Leonardo.
“He told me it was a gift and was sad that it ended up on the streets. So I told him I would treasure it as if it were a gift for me.”

Leonardo is among those striving to further recycle the three tonnes of waste that each Australia produces each year.

Marco Prayer, co-founder of RecycleSmart, standing in the street

Marco Prayer, co-founder of RecycleSmart Credit: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

RecycleSmart is a Sydney-based company co-founded by Marco Prayer, who emigrated from Florence in Italy. His team works with 14 councils in New South Wales and South Australia, collecting household waste for reuse or safe disposal.

“We take care of all those hard-to-recycle items and make sure they end up where they’ll be recycled in the most sustainable way,” Prayer said.
RecycleSmart has diverted about 300,000 recyclables from landfills since it started operating three years ago, he says.
In Melbourne, tons of household waste, including paint cans, mattresses and used batteries, end up at the Port Phillip Resource and Recovery Centre.

Port Phillip Mayor Marcus Pearl reports a 20% increase in litter since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Port Phillip Mayor Marcus Pryor at a waste collection area

Marcus Pryor, Mayor of Port Phillip Credit: SBS / Magica Fossati

During the shutdowns, as people worked from home, he says many residents cleaned their rooms of extra shelves, TVs or even replaced their bedding.

“For example, last year we collected over 5,000 mattresses in our community and those mattresses were recycled through a community business.
“People now know that if they have spare televisions, vacuum cleaners, heaters or radios, these items can all be recycled.”
The councils are implementing new programs for organic and food waste as well as glass and plastics, to help meet national goals of reducing waste sent to landfill by 80% by 2030.

“Every ton we can divert from landfill is a good result,” says Cr Pearl.

Paint cans ready to be recycled

Paint cans ready to be recycled Credit: SBS / Magica Fossati

And although contamination in recycling bins has increased during the pandemic, he says most people want to do the right thing once they understand the rules.

However, others are calling for policy changes to follow the lead of European countries, including Italy and France.
“Europeans have a better idea of ​​goods and their value,” says Gayle Sloan, CEO of the Australian Waste Management and Resource Recovery Association.

“In France, retailers display the total cost of disposal on the shelf, so customers know the true cost of living. And that’s what we need,” says Ms Sloan.

A vintage sewing machine recovered by Leonardo Urbano

A vintage sewing machine recovered by Leonardo Urbano Credit: SBS / Sandra Fulloon

To really reduce the amount of waste in landfills, Australia needs to focus on consumption.

“We have to buy less and buy things that are made to last longer. And we have to shift the paradigm to use what we have and keep it in circulation longer,” she says.

For waste crusaders like Leonardo Urbano, who works in the hospitality industry and spends his free time scouring the streets for valuables, reducing landfill is a priority.

Another goal is to support the community.
“I decided to give as much as I can, because I want to help people,” he says.
It’s a feeling he hopes to inspire in others.

“I would love for the council to get involved, and maybe find a space where I can put all these things and maybe people could come and get something they want,” he says.

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