Mariam Hazem, one of the founders of Reform Studio, explains why she collects plastic bags: “Statistics show the number of plastic bags on the globe is growing by a million each minute." And indeed, a June 2012 report by the GIZ Society for International Cooperation and SWEEP-Net says plastic constitutes 11 percent of solid waste in the Middle East and North Africa.
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 coffee shop flair; the difference being that the seats are made of braided plastic bags rather than wood. 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
The masterminds of Reform Studio are 25 year-olds Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad, who 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, and 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 Hazem. “We wanted to find a solution to one of Egypt’s most serious issues: all-pervading trash."
So she and Riad researched the topic and talked to some trash men and scavengers around Cairo. When they found out that because plastic doesn't decompose, most people get rid of it by burning it, they developed a method to convert bags into long threads. These threads are then strung on a loom and manually woven into fabric, which is 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 them”, Hend explains. Plastic that does get recycled is sometimes mixed up with hospital waste in the process, which means recycled products are of poor quality or even pose a health hazard. “That is why," he says, "the objective of our graduation project was not to recycle plastic bags, but to reuse them."
In a country, which according to Egyptian Ministry for the Environment statistics, only processes and reuses 9.5 percent of all its solid waste, it is a novel concept.
Promoting the idea of separating garbage, Reform Studio gets its plastic bags from two sources: from manufacturers who have flawed bags they would otherwise have to throw away and family and friends. By asking people they know to donate plastic bags, the entrepreneurs are raising awareness of the problem.
They also appeal to the public via the Reform Studio website to help collect bags, and every once in a while, they organize contests to raise awareness of the issue. In one such contest, workers at a concrete company were able to collect 4,000 bags within a week.
“Sadly, however,” says Riad, “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 such bags.”
The return of the loom
In their Reform Studio project, Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad are fusing two ideas: the new trend in upcycling and the ancient Egyptian tradition of the loom.
Weaving is a craft that goes all the way back to the time of the pharaohs, but as mechanization put many loom manufacturers out of business, skilled weavers are getting rare. “We hope our project will help revive the craft and put weavers back in work,” Hazem says.
In their own workshop, two weavers work three looms. Seventy percent of Reform Studio’s staff is female, and the project offers employment opportunities for untrained women – either at the workshop, or for those who are not in a position to leave the house for work, from home. These women are connected with Reform Studio by charitable organizations or associations and then trained for one week before they start working.
“From the outset, our goal was to make a product with an educational message,” says Riad. “In fact, our products have helped stir a discussion on how you can convert what some consider to be trash into something of value.”