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Christy Au-Yeung

This fashion enterprise transforms old plastic into wearable, sustainable products

This fashion enterprise transforms old plastic into wearable, sustainable products

Most people are aware that plastic pollution is a huge problem for the global community. While countries such as Germany and Belgium have developed successful recycling programs in efforts to minimize the amount of waste disposal, Ghana suffers from serious plastic waste management problems. Thousands of plastic bags bottles can be found in the streets and drain pipes; polluting and clogging drainage sewers.

Urban poverty is another significant problem in Ghana. According to a Unicef report, slightly over 10 percent of households in Ghana’ s urban areas experience poverty. Where education and health care are limited, a lot of people from slum communities lack the skillset to take on jobs and earn a living wage. Even worse, women and children are more likely to experience poverty at a higher intensity than men.

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Concerned with the growing number of children and plastic waste on the streets of Ghana, Kwaku Kyei took a bold step in 2011 to form RECNOWA Initiative, a non-profit social enterprise based in Kumasi, Ghana. The organization sells high-quality fashion-driven goods ranging from raincoats to bags; to furniture made from recycled plastic waste. Any and all plastic is taken out of landfills, neighbourhood streets, and anywhere else that its existence causes serious environmental havoc in the city.

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“Every product sold by RECNOWA reduces land pollution, keeps people employed and serves as a very visible reminder that plastic waste can often be put to good use long after its initial purpose has expired,” Kyei said. “People get excited [about our products] and wonder how we have been so creative to make our products from plastic waste.”

Since their establishment, over 20 million of plastic sachets and other material waste have been removed from the waste stream and up-cycled into useful products. 270,000 plastic water bags were manufactured into 2,000 solar powered backpacks for school children without electricity. Theses backpacks are designed to provide cheap energy sources to help children study at night. They also work to reduce the use of kerosene used at home, which can cause accidents and illness.

While the concept of turning waste into pieces of art is not new, it can be a life-changing opportunity for some street youth in Kumasi, Ghana. As one of Ghana's largest metropolitan cities, Kumasi has a competitive street market scene. Apart from solving plastic waste problems, RECNOWA also focuses on the rehabilitation and vocational training of street children and local artisans. RECNOWA trains and employs people with physical limitations, as well as street youth from disadvantaged communities, in the hope that this opportunity could help build up their future lives and lift them out of poverty.

Photographing a fashion component of the Recnowa Project in Ghana was a task that could easily have been shot in a park amongst some buildings at the university, or in a lush forest of palms. In fact, this was the idea being pushed on photographer and founder of PWB Danielle Da Silva  during discussions of the project, but in fashion, we've all seen something to that effect before. "I wanted the setting to be as interesting as the clothing and designers that we were showcasing, all the while emphasizing the beauty and history behind the traditional Kente fabrics, from the Ashanti region, Da Silva said. "Once I had the vision, I had to be un-waivering in its execution, or else it would come across as un-original and stale. We had to find a location that was intriguing and surprising to the viewer. I was adamant that we shoot in was a mechanics shop or a junkyard, in order to have a stark contrast between the subjects and my background. Lucky enough we found such a place, just one hour before the intended shoot. Talk about down to the wire."

RECNOWA has created employment opportunities for more than 130 people who are representing a household with an average of five family members. The domino affect sees approximately 650 people benefiting directly from the profits. In addition, the organization is also teaching people that plastic waste can have an inherent value of its own and should be saved rather than discarded indiscriminately.

Moving forward, RECNOWA wishes to replicate this model across communities in Ghana to benefit more people. However, financing is a huge obstacle. “We need financing to scale up our activities," Kyei said. "We are also looking at a partnership with business, foundations, corporate bodies, bilateral and multilateral institutions who would be buying our solar backpacks for school children in need.”

In the battle against waste and urban poverty, RECNOWA continues to help improve our living environment and contribute to the welfare of the residents in Ghana.

To learn more about RECNOWA initiative, click here