Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Two designers in the Egyptian capital decided to tackle one of city’s biggest issues: plastic bags.
Cairo’s streets, while known for their charm, are also known for their trash. Though informal garbage collectors called Zabaleen have made their living by gathering and recycling much of the city’s trash since the 1940s, in 2004 then-President Hosni Mubarak sidelined them by hiring multinational corporations to handle waste. It did not go well. Trash piled up more and more, and today, though some Zabaleen are now officially registered to work, garbage is abundant even in Cairo’s upscale areas.
One of the main culprits? Plastic bags. The crinkly sacs are, of course, a problem everywhere. Globally, one million are used each minute—while scientists estimate that they’ll stick around the earth for at least 500 years.
Their ubiquity in Egypt cannot be overstated. Two young designers, Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad, not only discovered that plastic bags are the second-most wasted material in the country. They also found that in Egypt disposed-of bags are generally burned, releasing toxins. And plastic bags are expensive to recycle, so only a few Egyptian companies take on the task.
In 2011 Hazem and Riad were fellow design students at the German University in Cairo. Inspired by the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak early that year, they resolved to do something to change Egypt for the better. The two women decided on “one of Egypt’s most serious problems: all-pervading trash,” Hazem told the organization Planet Experts.
They collected plastic bags from friends and family and figured out a way to sterilize and cut them into long strips. The strips are then threaded into a handloom and woven together with fabric. The finished product, dubbed Plastex, is composed of 67 percent bag and 33 percent recycled cotton, and can be used to make such items as chairs, stools, and bags with a distinctive, often multicolored look.
The use of the handloom is deliberate. Handweaving is an Egyptian practice that dates back millennia, but since mechanization replaced it hardly anyone does it anymore. Hazem and Riad combed through Cairo and finally found some artisans who were up for the job. They also train and hire Cairenes in need of work, especially women. Seventy percent of their workshop’s employees are female. “We hope our project helps revive the craft,” Hazem told Planet Experts.