Haitians Are Turning Plastic Waste Into Valuable Fabric

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 5:16 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From trash to high-end fashion, environmentalists and retailers are taking discarded plastics and turning them into clothes, boots and bags. This trend caught the eye of NPR's Carrie Kahn when she was on two recent trips, one in Haiti and another on a boat in the Gulf of California off Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bridge, this is deck. Port ray is in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, copy. Thank you.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The crew on board the 180-foot-long MV Sam Simon is trolling for illegal gill nets. The nets and illegal fishing in these warm waters is being blamed for the near extinction of a small porpoise known as the vaquita. Tom Zac, a volunteer crew member with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Group (ph), says the polyester and plastic nets they pick up are an environmental hazard for the ocean.

TOM ZAC: And it's just a gigantic death trap for any marine life that happened to get caught up into it.

KAHN: Hauled out of the water, the crews get to work on the nets.

ZAC: This bag - after we - we cut the nets into pieces and we separate them.

KAHN: And they remove all the weights and buoys attached. Once the giant bags are full of small pieces of netting, they're shipped to an intermediary, made into fabric and ultimately end up in a new line of high-end running shoes by Adidas. Recycling plastics into apparel isn't a new trend, but it's gaining mainstream momentum. Retailers from H&M to Target and J.C. Penney's fall fashions were manufactured from waste these days. Timberland, the company with the yellow work boots, says it will have 100 percent of its products made with recycled components by the year 2020. That's good news for Ian Rosenberger. He runs the company Thread, based in the U.S., but they turn recycled plastic bottles from Haiti into fabric. He just won a big contract to help Timberland reach its goal. He says he got into this business hoping to make an idea a reality.

IAN ROSENBERGER: Waste is a resource, not something to be thrown away.

KAHN: He says his company, which he started six years ago, is already seeing sales figures around $4 million as demand for recycled fabric grows. About 30 minutes outside Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, dozens of men are sorting, cleaning and bundling hundreds of thousands of plastic bottles at this recycling center. Thread staffer Richardson Antoine says twice a week he buys a shipping container full of washed, sorted and ground-up plastic bottles from here. The ground-up flakes are sent to factories in North Carolina and Mexico, where they're turned into fabric.

RICHARDSON ANTOINE: We make 240,000 bottles in a day.

KAHN: There's that many bottles in Port-au-Prince?

ANTOINE: Yes. We have more than that.

KAHN: Antoine says as many as 60 Haitians are earning income from picking up bottles in Haiti's streets, canals and landfills. Retail surveys show consumers, especially millennials, want to buy greener apparel. In a spring poll this year by America's Research Group, nearly 40 percent of young shoppers say they respond positively to environmentally-friendly products. Price, though, does matter. Many surveyed also said they would only be willing to spend 3 to 4 percent more for green products.

ROY KATZ: It is for a limited audience. This is not for - we're not competing with Walmart.

KAHN: Roy Katz owns a small apparel company in Denver, Colo. He buys recycled fabric from Thread. He's come to Haiti to see his source material in person. He's carrying one of his company's handcrafted backpacks, retail price $289.

KATZ: So it's definitely an investment, but it's - you know, there is a group of customers that really cares about that.

KAHN: As for those Adidas running shoes made out of recycled gill nets recovered in Mexican waters, shoppers outside the apparel giant's flagship store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue say the price tag - $200 - is too high. But in my very unscientific poll, other shoppers like Karen Johnson from Australia didn't flinch at the cost.

KAREN JOHNSON: Anything you can do to help, absolutely.

KAHN: She says the environment must come first. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.