Background story

HOW IT STARTED

How did we end up in Peru? On a green card to ‘do something with the plastic waste’ we were send to Lima –Peru- by V2, the Institute for Unstable Media based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

We didn’t want to just ‘do something’ and return; we wanted to do something with a longer-term effect.

In Peru, the plastic waste problem is growing rapidly: the migration from the impoverished highlands and mountains to the big cities and the growth of the middle class results in an increase in consumption and correspondingly waste. The Peruvian authorities and enterprises lack the capacity to process this waste in a sustainable manner; most recycling is done by informal individuals at the edge of survival. These waste pickers, or ‘recicladores’, live in shanty towns in the urban periphery. Many of them migrated from the impoverished highlands and mountains to the city, but their hopes on a better life quickly faded away as lack of higher education forced them to do the simple but dirty work, such as cleaning and waste picking. Taking the lowest sport on the social ladder, but doing essential work for the wellbeing of the nation, we knew that the ‘recicladores’ would be a focal point to spark the plastic recycling evolution in Peru. We came into contact with an awareness organization based in Lima, L.O.O.P, who illuminated us on the fact that most of the waste picking is done by migrants living in shanty towns; to sustain their families, waste picking is just one of the many economic activities.

These migrants generally have had little education, and grew up in more traditional areas, where crafts such as weaving and knitting formed an important source of income. The rise of Chinese industrial manufactured copies of traditional Peruvian fabrics severely affected these people, who were forced to abandon this ancient tradition and look for other means to survive.

Could we revive this tradition, which forms an important part of the Peruvian cultural heritage, using waste materials as input?

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Our quest to get to know these waste-pickers led us to Ruwasunchis, a social enterprise operating in one of the many shanty towns, or pueblos jovenes, of metropolitan Lima. They started a project where local women were weaving fabric which was sold by Ruwasunchis. We decided that, together with these women, we would explore the possibilities to design a product using their skills and with plastic waste as input material. We already had developed a simple technique to process discarded plastic (PET) bottles into thread; could these women weave with this thread? The PET thread resembles a bit nylon thread; it is only much stronger hence durable, comes in different colors, and is produced with discarded bottles instead of oil. That means the hard PET yarn is not optimal to use in clothing, but better used for functional and durable purposes. Would these pioneering women face difficulties working with this new and alien material?

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During our stay, we gave a number of workshops to figure out together what the possibilities are, and the results were quite impressive, given the little investment these women could make. Even though they tend to knit and crochet rather than weave – in Spanish there exists only one word to describe all-, we noticed that these women are extremely gifted with their hands, and one physical sample was enough for them to understand how they could make it.

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Unfortunately, the women lacked time and self-esteem to really design their own products with the PET-thread, even though they were very enthusiastic and devoted. But struggling for survival somehow takes hostage of the mind, negatively affecting creativity and boycotting investments that pay off in the future. What they were in need of was a well-designed product that they can easily replicate using their talent. And a market eager and interested to purchase social and sustainable manufactured products; in Peru only the young elite has yet shown interest for durable items.

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Back in the Netherlands, the idea was born to connect international designers with talent in a local context, such as the women of Manchay, using the simply produced PET-thread as main raw material for a sustainable design. Being trained as designers ourselves, we wanted to give creative minds the opportunity to exchange culture, craftsmanship and knowledge in order to develop a product that is sustainable on all fields, including the social one. Designers that despise current product production, done in factories with no face, under possibly horrific human conditions and polluting surrounding environments.  Factories that manufacture products to which the consumer cannot relate himself, and as such do not take care of these items.

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We started our search for a designer committed to social and sustainable responsible product design, interested in working with skilled communities living in substance. Given the strength of the PET thread, its UV-resistance and last but not least its transparency, the most value could be generated when developing a furniture piece, whether for indoor or outdoor.  After all, the more value we can add to plastic waste, the more interesting it will be for people to start processing discarded plastic and the higher their revenues will be.