Purses from Plastic

THE UBIQUITOUS PLASTIC grocery bag—used for lunches, garbage cans, and groceries—is one of the most prolific sources of pollution in modern-day society. Scientists estimate that worldwide people use 500 trillion plastic bags each year. In the Americas alone, the United States reports using 380 billion plastic bags a year. Cheap to buy and easy to store, the plastic bag has become the favorite of grocery stores who no longer ask, “Paper or plastic?”

Lack of recycling programs and improper disposal of the bags create a waste nightmare and environmental hazards that are too complex to track. Non biodegradable plastic bags travel on the wind polluting our oceans and forests or take up permanent residence in our already overcrowded landfills.

Since 2006 an innovative program that started in Costa Rica is using those bags in a most environmentally friendly way. Women living in small villages on the Caribbean Coast convert the plastic bags into thread and weave attractive and colorful purses with them. Weaving for Nature is run by WIDECAST, a conservation organization that protects sea turtles in the Caribbean and its surroundings. The program solves several problems at once. The bags are re-used, eliminating the need for disposal, and the business gives people an environmentally friendly income source.

The program is organized to promote fair trade standards with an environmental mission. The weaver receives 75% of the profit and the rest goes toward sea turtle conservation efforts. The weavers, mostly housewives in small villages, work under fair and relaxed conditions and are compensated for all stages of production from collecting and washing the bags through the finished product.

According to Didiher Chacon-Chaverri, WIDECAST Country Coordinator in Costa Rica, weavers produce about 3 purses a week that means they can earn $180 a month to supplement their family’s main income. To date the project has employed more than 50 women in villages on the coast of Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. In 2008 the sale of bags, coin purses, plastic figures and Christmas Tree ornaments generated $75,000 in income for the four coastal communities.

The environmental benefits of this program are far-reaching. Along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and other countries, the plastic bag is a deadly enemy of marine habitats. Because many of these bags are thrown on the ground or tossed into rivers, they often end up in the sea where they suffocate coral and kill sea turtles. For the hapless sea turtle gliding through the ocean, a plastic bag looks just like its favorite food, the jellyfish. The turtle gobbles up the bag and either chokes on the plastic or feels full and stops looking for real food.

Unfortunately plastic waste of any kind affects the entire marine environment. Because plastic bags are made of polyethylene they are not biodegradable, and even if the bags are broken into smaller pieces, their tiny particles invade all levels of the food chain causing disease and sometimes death for marine life. The Dolphin Research Center in Florida estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die each year from eating plastic bags.

WIDECAST estimates that each purse made is removing approximately 70 plastic bags from the environment for a total of 12,000 plastic bags a month. The bags are sold throughout Costa Rica in tourist areas and gift shops and online through http://www.inbio.ac.cr. They range in color and size and come in various styles including beach bags, calabash bags, messenger bags, water bottle cases, and coin purses. For more information about the project, visit latinamericanseaturtles.org.

Published in Americas magazine by Chris Hardman

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