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Ninna and Kaitlin are Reground
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Ninna and Kaitlin are Reground
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Ninna and Kaitlin are Reground
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"When you know that the world as a whole is struggling to produce these valuable virgin resources, you just know in your gut that we can’t really keep on living like that."
21 September 2017

Ninna and Kaitlin are Reground

Interview by Tegan Sullivan
Photography by Tegan Sullivan

Tegan Sullivan on Reground

Ninna Larsen and Kaitlin Reid believe that the universe helped bring them together. Ninna’s journey took her from Denmark to Japan, then Thailand and finally Melbourne, escaping the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake along the way.

Kaitlin started out in Brisbane before moving to Melbourne, but it was a year of soul-searching in South America that guided her onto the path of sustainability.

Both women talk about travel as a defining force in their lives, allowing them to open their hearts and their minds. It is from this place of openness that they are able to work together to combat the greatest issue of our time: climate change.

Their business model is simple. Cafes and businesses purchase a bin that is used exclusively for used coffee grounds. When it’s full, the Reground van collects it and distributes the grounds to a network of community gardeners and home gardeners.

By diverting the coffee from landfill, the Reground service prevents thousands of tonnes of methane gas from entering the atmosphere, and helps provide essential nutrients for soil. They call it “black gold”, and to date they have diverted 67 tonnes of it.

Earlier this year, they ran a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign to get their own van, and in April they hit their target.

Kaitlin and Ninna’s enthusiasm is contagious, and by the end of our chat I am convinced that we can all, in our own way, change the world.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

TEGAN SULLIVAN: With climate change, people are terrified. How do you two feel about climate change and how have you been able to turn that fear into action?

NINNA LARSEN: From pretty early in my childhood I have been confronted with life’s biggest issues. I’m from Denmark and I remember when I was in high school we had CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) in Switzerland…

T: That was the particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider?

N: Yeah, and they tried to recreate the Big Bang. I was fucking petrified. At that time in my life I started to become fearful of a lot of things that were much bigger than myself and my family and just too big to comprehend, and I think those thoughts really kickstarted my path into sustainability. I started studying after that and fell into an internship dealing with sustainability, and really found a space to confront my fear.

T: And how about you Kaitlin?

KAITLIN REID: I come from Brisbane where I was never really confronted with climate change. I was quite sheltered from it. Then moving here, I was a bit more open and I was choosing to learn. I was very lucky in meeting Ninna and Reground and seeing a way that I could use my skills and really answer a yearning that I had which was to live for a bit more purpose and change the definition of success. Now when I see my family back home, and my granddad especially, I know I’m never gonna change his mind. He said to me, “We’re just Australia, we’re tiny, what can we do?” And I’m just like [laughs] you know, he’s not just talking about one person, he’s talking about a whole country. So I do feel very lucky that that is no longer the mentality that I am in, because that is a hard thing to break.

T: Totally! And I read something about a trip to South America as being a kind of pivotal turning point for you.

K: Yes, yes! I quit my day job, took my boyfriend and went for a year to South America. I was working in a media agency and it just wasn’t for me. There were a lot of superficial things going on there. I didn’t own a TV and I was trying to place TV ads, it just wasn’t working. So I spent a year in South America volunteering on coffee farms—having no idea that I would have anything to do with coffee.

T: That’s such a crazy connection!

K: Yeah! We stayed in a small town for a month in Colombia in the coffee hills and we were the only white people that the town had ever seen. We were really just immersed in those communities and seeing what really affects them and also how they’re so happy. And I vowed to do quite a bit of soul-searching and really try to understand my values on that trip. I came back and was like, I need to work in sustainability. When I first came back I worked for a food wastage app called Yume. Then I deviated a bit and worked for Deliveroo, and again hit that same wall without really understanding why. It’s like, I’m in a great job, I’m in a really awesome startup and I’m earning heaps of money, but every time I’m in a sales meeting I’m asking about packaging and if they care about that, and I was doing my own little audits on the side. So, yeah, doing a trip like that with that intention, you know, not just a holiday, or to have a good time, really helped steer my path.

T: And Ninna, how did you come to be in Melbourne?

N: Well I finished my studies in Denmark, I did an internship in Japan, and then the earthquake hit.

T: Oh wow.

N: Yeah, so I had to leave Japan pretty suddenly, and ended up in Thailand. I spent three months there just living with these people who had nothing, and they were so happy. They’d just find happiness in sitting together, talking, eating, really basic things, and that helped balance out my stress from the earthquake. I finished my studies the following year and then came to Australia.

T: How did you two meet?

K: It really was a twist of fate. It was when I was working for Yume, I walked into a café and said briefly why I was there, and James who was the owner was like, “There’s this person you have to meet,” and gave me Ninna’s contact details. We caught up for a coffee—and that was probably a year or so before I joined—but I was so excited about it. Ninna had been working at Padre…

N: That’s where Reground started and that’s where I found the first person to actually believe in the idea. We had a lot of conversations around the model and how to change behaviour, and James was obviously an owner of a café, so I trialled the service there which provided the foundation for what it is today. I had done Reground for maybe a year.

T: Just by yourself?

N: Just by myself with a bit of help from my private network. When you’re trying to change the world, it can be quite lonely. You can really find yourself in a space where not a lot of people dare to follow the same kind of path as you, and I was really struggling with that. So I was looking for someone to join, and that was just the perfect moment for Reground, for me, that Kaitlin was presented. The universe really helped.

T: I find collaborative businesses fascinating. I’d love to hear—how does it work? Who brings what to the table?

K: 100 percent open and honest communication. That’s the only way it works, that’s the only way it can work. For me the first kind of learning was understanding that this person is really different to me, or understanding what stresses them out and seeing that they might react differently. All these little things that you just intrinsically learn about your romantic partner, slowly but surely.

But in business you don’t learn it slowly, you choose to do this and you’re thrown in and now let’s make a big financial decision together.

N: It’s really challenging, but it’s just about embracing it and working out the best solution, rather than running away from it. We come from two very different backgrounds and we have two very different sets of skills, which is why the business is succeeding, because we can look at a problem in two different ways. But it also is a challenge because we need to be able to show understanding and empathy towards each other, which is something that is always hard, and you will experience that in any kind of organisation.

K: I think both of us are open to becoming better humans. If I learn something new about myself that I can try and apply every day, then that’s awesome. We see that as personal and professional development and that’s something that we strive towards. We’re never going to be the best.

N: And it’s actually how you should be doing business. Also on a bigger scale, when we are collaborating with a lot of businesses, we’ve acknowledged that we’re stronger together, even in our differences. But yeah it’s not the easiest way to do business…

T: No, hats off to you!

K: I think initially we didn’t actually split all the roles, you know you asked about who brings what. We’ve been growing the business organically, and that’s been really beneficial to Reground becoming what it needs to be when it needs to be.

T: And on that note, you guys just got a van and two drivers. So the crowdfunding campaign for the van—were you expecting such a good response?

N: Oh god no. I remember saying to Kaitlin we have to make it, we have to hit the target, and that was one of those fear moments.

K: I think we never would have let it fail, but we still had no idea that we were going to have the community push that we did. There were definitely tearful moments. It was a big month.

T: Who is your community?

N: Our community has a few different faces. So we have the cafes that we work with, which are our greatest supporters ever. They really believe in change and they put their money where their mouth is. And we’ve also got to know a new community of people that are really aligned in terms of values. People that are really loving social enterprises and local businesses, and like knowing who the owners of the business are. We obviously have a big network of end users – home gardeners and community gardeners – and amongst these people we’ve found a lot of power. But really when you put yourself out there, especially with a crowdfunding campaign, you have to be quite honest about who you are and what you’re trying to achieve.

T: There’s such vulnerability in that.

Both: Ohhh yeah.

N: And you get so many people from different places in the world as well.

K: I think that was the biggest thing, the individuals that just came out of the woodwork, through our network or through friends of friends, people that just gave five dollars and you’re like, “You have no idea what that means!”

N: I remember Dave pledged 10 dollars, and was a big advocate. He wasn’t part of Reground before, but now he’s one of our drivers.

T: That’s amazing!

K: Yeah! It was a really valuable exercise just for the community aspect of it.

If we can somehow figure out a way to always cultivate that feeling, it’s something that can really push you along for a long time.

T: I feel like it’s just this perfect marriage of circumstances, you know, everyone is interested in sustainability, you’re in Melbourne working with coffee, and there’s this whole start up, crowdfunding culture. Do you feel like you could have done something like this pre-internet?

N: No. Even in late 2014 when I started Reground, this would not have worked. The crowdfunding campaign was a combination of the universe helping us, all the cafes that we’d managed to get on board by that time, people in the industry really pushing it, there were a few other things like…

K: …the War on Waste, and we did a Sustainability in the Industry event.

N: So it was something that people wanted to talk about, it was perfect timing. And timing is what they say is the most important factor in any kind of success. So I think we were lucky. But sustainability is not a trend, it’s here to stay.

T: Is there anything you’d like to do more directly with consumers?

N: We’ve always pushed for some kind of certification as a way for people to support the cafes that support us. Because the cafes that we work with, they’re paying us to provide this material to end users for free. We need people that are drinking coffee to go support these cafes, and make it mainstream to do something better. To understand that this coffee is going into the ground, while the rest is ending up in landfill.

K: Education is a really core pillar of what we do, and we do it a lot with the gardeners—the home gardeners and the community gardeners, the end users, talking about what it’s good for, why it shouldn’t go to landfill, what’s amazing about coffee, the potassium, the nitrogen. But we do need to reach out to everyday people, because that is where the push needs to come from. Ideally we want changes in legislation around organic waste removal.

N: And if everyone knew that organic waste shouldn’t end in landfill, that they can compost this at home, we wouldn’t have a problem. Behind the scenes we’re working to create a revolution so that we can go to the government and say, look, there’s actually a demand.

T: And here’s the proof!

N: Yeah. The industry that supports us is proof of that. Currently we have general waste and general recycling. It’s simply not good enough. When you know that the world as a whole is struggling to produce these valuable virgin resources, you just know in your gut that we can’t really keep on living like that.

T: I feel like Denmark sets a better example.

N: Definitely. My big inspiration is my parents’ house, which always gets better. They had eight bins when I went home in December.

T: Wow.

N: And this is just normal behaviour for them. For them it’s not hard, it’s actually harder to put it into the same bin because it creates congestion inside the house. In Denmark, currently 80 percent of all waste is getting reused. We don’t have a lot of space so we have to use the resources that are unsoiled. 20 percent still gets burnt for energy for households. But Denmark has a goal to reuse 93 percent of all waste, and the goal keeps going up.

T: I feel like whenever Australia sets a goal, it’s a lovely idea, but then we watch all of the ways in which our systems, people and government fail to make it happen.

K: Absolutely.

N: Yeah, we were at the Sustainable Living Festival and we had a stall across from the City of Melbourne, and someone from the City of Melbourne was telling us they’ve committed to being CO2 neutral by 2020. We’ve had a lot of issues with the City of Melbourne council, because they’re really struggling to see the value in supporting something like Reground. They’re throwing their coffee out when they could actually reach the CO2 neutral target.

T: You’re giving them an option!

N: They’re refusing to take that. And that’s a problem because they are the decision-makers, you know. They’re the richest council in Victoria.

When businesses look for answers, they ask the councils. And if the councils are not role models, that’s a problem.

K: I’ve heard it often blamed, not the council part—but the behaviour—on Australians being lazy. We met with a client and talked about bins and apparently they had looked at putting more than a couple of bins in the rooms and it was just vetoed because “Australians are too lazy.”

N: We found that having this conversation on changing to the Reground service is like, “Oh it’s a bit hard because it’s a different behaviour.”

T: It’s change.

N: Yeah, exactly. Then they see what it actually is and they see that it’s easier! That’s actually what sustainability is meant to be. It’s meant to be about innovation and improving systems, not making life harder.

T: I feel like you guys should go into schools and start talking to them when they’re young about being open-minded so it doesn’t get to the point where they have to escape an earthquake or take a year off from their life.

N: You’re right. Because really, happiness is wherever you create it. We really are all about—as much as diverting waste—we are about inspiring others to follow this good path of creating businesses or initiatives, solutions that actually help.

K: And it can enrich your life so much more, it’s not like we’re tying ourselves to a tree. My life is so much better from doing Reground and from having positive conversations every day, not banging down someone’s door trying to sell them something they don’t want.

T: Or that you don’t believe in.

K: Yeah, or that I don’t believe in, worse so, because you can’t bloody sleep at night. But having positive conversations and really enriching your community, it’s like, who’s not going to benefit?

N: I could never work for someone else, because this works with what my values are. It is a big fear, stepping into this whole self-employed thing. But when you have to look the fear in the eye, you see it’s not the fear but the fear of the fear that is the problem. And then life becomes free and you can do whatever you want.

Tegan Sullivan

Tegan is a Dumbo Feather reader from way back with a love for spreadsheets and to-do lists. She looks after our subscribers and keeps the stationery cupboard well-stocked. She also writes, dabbles in photography and surrounds herself with cats.

Photography by Tegan Sullivan

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