In the hall of an old industrial building, once the base of a communist factory, Claudia is skillfully sewing a traditional pattern on what seems to be a bag… if the material she is holding wasn’t so odd.
Claudia, 35, is working for Remesh, a social enterprise based in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. “I’ve been working here for three years and I didn’t know how to do this at first. I never had a job before but here, step by step, I learned,” explains Claudia Babaciu.
This innovative enterprise collects 20 tones of used advertising banners and meshes per year to transforms them into unique design objects and handmade fashion accessories.
“We realised there was a lot of outdoor advertising campaigns on banners and meshes, which lifespan was extremely short: a week or two, maximum a month, before they got removed and sent straight to landfill,” explains Remesh founder Raluca Ouriaghli.
“These ads can’t be burned because some are made of PVC which contains chlorine. Burned chlorine being extremely polluting, it would worsen the issue to do so. Our goal is to reduce the waste and extend their lifespan in a creative way” sums up Ouriaghli.
Remesh is part of a bigger waste reduction and recycling NGO called ‘Workshops without Borders’ that started in 2009. ‘Reconnect’ was the name of the first workshop repairing computers and donating them to schools and kindergartens. In 2012, Remesh was founded to both reuse ad banners and reintroduce marginalized people in the workforce.
Remesh employs former homeless people, teens with no family, human trafficking and domestic violence victims, single mothers with many children, disabled people, and HIV infected people.
“I grew up in an orphanage. From there, I tried to stay with my family but I didn’t like it, and from the age of 16 I lived in the streets,” recalls Claudia Babaciu.
When Raluca Ouriaghli hired her, Claudia was living with her three children in a centre for mothers who have been victim of abuse. “At the centre, they asked me to leave and find a job but you can imagine how I used to look when I lived in the streets. No one wanted to hire me. My skin is a little bit darker so everybody called me “gypsy” and rejected me,” Claudia says.
The organization currently provides professional training for two years to disadvantaged people like Claudia, before they are able to find a job on their own. Some decide to stay longer like Constantin Lavinia, 42, who joined Remesh after living four years on the streets with her boy.
The Remesh collection is diverse. From jewels, promotional costumes for concerts, skirts, belts, beach and shopping bags, party clutches, book and laptop covers, to business cards holders, makeup bags, and protective covers for clothes, the list of possibilities seems almost endless.
“We want to be creative in a useful way, not in an extravagant one,” explain Raluca Ouriaghli. For example, “we often make bags and promotional items for press conferences from the advertising banners of the companies and NGOs that produced them in the first place”.
“These companies are very proud to showcase Remesh products to partners and employees as these items are a visual proofs of their eco-responsibility,” she adds. Indeed, the final products hold some similarities with the original banner they are made of.
“We collect the materials, we roll them, we separate them by color, we wash them. Then we tailor and we sew,” Ouriaghli describes. “Over the years, I’ve learned to do everything and the easiest are the bags”.
“I saw the products I made in a Carrefour supermarket. I had never seen them there before and I was so proud, because I knew we had made them in our completely unique way.” Ouriaghli recalls.
International supermarket chain Carrefour is one of the many partners of Remesh, and retails its various products in stores across the country. Multi-nationals Société Générale, Dacia Renault, Orange and IKEA also back the project. And the brand, which started with one team leader and two employees, now counts a production manager, confectionery director and a team of ten employees.
Team leader Roxana Albon, 47, has 25 years of experience in the textile industry. She fuels Remesh with her expertise and comes up with solutions during brainstorming sessions. “We sometimes encounter problems because the banners are damaged, some of them possess a hard texture and break if the temperature is too low,” she describes.
To stay current, the brand teams up with up-and-coming designers such as Romanian object creator Bogdan Moga, which is the one behind this playful armchair for cats and a very popular model of baskets. Chilian Jewelry maker Mariana Villanueva, also works with Remesh.
Ouriaghli estimates the overall work of her organization only represents 0.5 per cent of the amount of advertising produced each year in Bucharest. And out of the 20 tons collected, Remesh manages to reuse approximately 10 to 12 tons per year. The rest is given to workshops for children and Art College students.
Remesh is not the only Romanian initiative in the upcycling sector. Irina Breniuc, journalist at Green Report , a portal of environmental news, recently creted a map of upcycling businesses in Romania and identified around 25 projects.
“Some of them are dedicated to the production of furniture and decorations, others to the making of clothing and accessories. The phenomenon may actually be more widespread than it seems, since many craftsmen started their own initiatives without necessarily calling it “upcycling”, she explains.
According to Breniuc, the biggest challenge for companies in the upcycling sector is explaining the cost of their product. “The consumer may not understand why a product created out of waste, which is material free of charge, can cost more than one coming out of regular mass production” she says.
However, “raw waste material requires heavy design adaptation, which obviously means much more time spent producing the product. This affect the price” she points out.
Indeed, as Raluca Ouriaghli puts it “instead of buying a bag produced in China or Taiwan, made by unpaid children, you can buy a Remesh bag and help support local insertion in Romania enabling less fortunate to totally reintegrate society with dignity” she concludes.
Writer: Lorelei Mihala
Follow Lorelei @loreleimihala