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The old adage “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” could be the motto for the project Reform Studio.

Mariam Hazem, one of the project founders, explains why she collects plastic bags: “Statistics show that the number of plastic bags on the globe is growing by a million each minute. A June 2012 report by the GIZ Society for International Cooperation and SWEEP-Net states that 11% of solid waste in the Middle East and North Africa consists of plastic.

Reform Studio is headquartered in El-Tagamo El-Khames, one of the more refined quarters of Cairo. Visitors are immediately struck by the unique, colorful seating arrangements. The “El-Qahwa” (‘the coffee’) chair collection has an authentically Egyptian flair as it mimics the chairs in traditional coffee shops; except that the seats are not made of wood, but of plaited plastic bags. The “Gramaz” set (derived from ‘grandmas’), on the other hand, is more modern, inspired by an old chair that used to belong to Mariam’s grandmother. It takes 50 plastic bags to manufacture one chair for the “Ahwa” collection, a piece from the “Gramaz” collection requires three times as many.

It all started with the revolution

Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad, both 25 years old, are the masterminds of Reform Studio. They originally came up with the concept for their graduation project at the Faculty of Applied Arts at the German University in Cairo in 2014. Today, their idea has evolved into a brand. Their products are available at six stores in Cairo and one in London.

“After the onset of the revolution on January 25, 2011, we were highly motivated, we wanted to be part of the change,” says Mariam. “We wanted to find a solution to one of Egypt’s most serious issues: the all-pervading trash,” Mariam adds. So the two researched the topic and talked to some trash men and scavengers around Cairo. They learned that people mostly get rid of plastic by burning it, because it does not decompose. Therefore, Mariam and Hend developed a method to convert bags into long threads. These threads are strung on a loom and manually woven into fabric, which is then used to create chairs, bags and home accessories.

“It is more expensive to recycle plastic bags than it is to make them, which is why only a very small number of Egyptian companies recycle plastic bags”, Hend explains. Plastic that does get recycled is sometimes mixed up with hospital waste in the recycling process, which means that recycled products are of poor quality or even pose a health hazard. “Therefore, the objective of our graduation project was not to recycle plastic bags, but to reuse them.” The Egyptian Ministry for the Environment states that a mere 9.5 percent of all solid waste in the country is processed and reused.

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Turning plastic bags into designer furniture: a business idea that has earned Reform Studio several design awards. Photo: Sabry Khaled (CC BY-NC-ND)

Promoting the idea of separating garbage

Reform Studio receives plastic bags from two sources: On the one hand from families and friends and on the other hand they use flawed plastic bags and plastic shreds, which are not fit to be sold and therefore would be thrown away by plastic bag manufacturers. By asking their friends for plastic bags, Mariam and Hend are raising awareness of the problem. “We want to promote the idea of separating garbage at the very base. Many friends and family actually did start separating plastic bags from the rest of their trash so they can give us clean bags.”

 They also invite the public to help collect bags on the Reform Studio website. Every once in a while, they organize contests to raise awareness for the topic. In one such contest, workers at a concrete company were able to collect 4,000 bags within a week. “Sadly, however,” says Hend, “we are currently unable to use any bags collected from landfills.” Many of these bags are in poor condition and cannot be made into threads. Cleaning and disinfecting is immensely costly. “But we are looking for a solution to sanitize these bags.”

Mina (28), sales associate with Eklego Design in Cairo’s sophisticated Zamalek quarter, reports: “Most first-time customers are drawn by the colors of the Reform Studio chairs, then they are intrigued by the material they are made of. When I tell them the background story of the chairs being made of plastic bags, they get excited to buy one.”

The return of the loom

In their project Reform Studio, Mariam and Hend are fusing two ideas: the new approach of upcycling and the ancient Egyptian tradition of the loom.

Weaving is a craft that goes back all the way to the time of the pharaohs. Yet skilled weavers are getting rare, as mechanization forced many loom manufacturers to shut down. “We hope our project helps revive the craft and puts weavers to work,” Mariam says. In the Reform Studio workshop, two weavers work three looms.

70 percent of Reform Studio’s staff is female. The project offers employment opportunities for untrained women – either at the workshop, or from home, for those who are not in a position to leave the house for work. These women are connected with Reform Studio by charitable organizations or associations and then trained for one week before they start working.

Rawdha Abdallah (45), one of the employees at the workshop, says: “I like working with my hands. I used to make white Nubian shawls and sell them to tourists.” She learned about the opportunity through an association. “I like the work and how pleasantly people treat each other here,” Rawdha adds. She has been working for Reform Studio for three years now.

“From the outset, our goal was to make a product with an educational message,” says Hend. “In fact, our products have helped stir a discussion how you can convert things that some consider trash into something of value.”