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World Reports

It’‘s in the bag

From Trashy to Flashy
How a Central
American
community is
making books
out of trash.

One of the first things Analea Brauburger noticed when she stepped off the plane in Honduras was the trash all over the airport parking lot.

“Litter is a major detractor from the beautiful naturaleza [nature],” the 27-year-old Peace Corps volunteer says. With nearly half its landscape devoted to forest, Honduras is the greenest of all Central American countries, more tree-covered than even eco-touristy Costa Rica. It’s also covered with garbage. “The streets are filled with trash. People throw soda bottles and Styrofoam containers out the windows of buses without anyone blinking an eye,” says Brauburger.

Brauburger soon realized that brightly colored chip bags accounted for much of the refuse. According to her informal field data, the average Honduran eats two bags of chips per day. In a country lacking a centralized waste collection system – no public trash cans and only the occasional city dump – household garbage ends up either littered or burned. She called the fumes a national health concern, saying she often gets migraine headaches as a result. Respiratory ailments in children, babies, and adults are a growing problem.

One afternoon, another Peace Corps volunteer showed her how to make a coin purse out of these ubiquitous chip bags, a skill passed down from an organic farmer who himself was taught by someone in Mexico. It wasn’t long before Brauburger had employed two teenagers to pick up the bags scattered throughout the village streets. Two hours later, they returned with 500 of them.

From this initial batch of litter, Brauburger created basurabags.org, a line of 10 different designs, from clutch purses to book bags to iPod cases. Ultimately, she’s spearheaded much more: a classic example of a problem becoming a solution, a resource rescued from waste, a single endeavor addressing multiple issues.

Whether among the tourists in Honduras’ Roatán Islands or New York City’s fashionistas, the bags were a hit. Woven into a pattern of multi-colored, shiny diamonds, these “Basura Bags” – literally “trash bags” – are eye-catching zigzags of recycled rainbows; some have straps, some have zippers, all are unique. More importantly, Brauburger recognized that a burgeoning movement in her home country around ecologically and socially conscious consumerism provided a way to keep transforming discarded chip bags into an hecho a mano (handmade) cottage industry.

But prettying up the scenery and turning Third World trash into stylish accessories for funky-chic Westerners was just the beginning of Brauburger’s project. “Throughout my two years of service I’ve been haunted by the fact that there aren’t books in the schools,” Brauburger says, explaining that the average Honduran has a sixth-grade level of education.

She says the typical method of teaching is for students to copy whatever the teacher puts on the chalkboard. “Hondurans are lucky to have a school building with functional lighting and desks with benches or chairs. Books come after that. Schools do not usually have libraries, nor do the towns.”

It makes sense, then, that Brauburger funnels all the profits from selling Basura Bags towards buying textbooks; she stressed that basurabags.org will soon officially be a non-profit organization, and has never been considered a for-profit business.

The bags are also a small step towards addressing another persistent national problem: poverty. Brauburger pays her workers four times what they would earn doing back-breaking agricultural labor, the most common job in the country. She employs 10 Hondurans full-time working from their homes, often as a collective family effort. Brauburger said that one woman paid for a breast exam she had been unable to afford for three years prior to working for basurabags.org. A teenager uses his wages to pay for high school. Perhaps ironically, the bag-makers have the funds to afford a healthier diet, eating more fruits and vegetables among the staple rice, beans, tortillas, and, of course, chips.

Constructing the bags, like most goods made outside of sweatshops, is time-consuming. The process involves cleaning the bags, cutting them into pieces, folding the pieces into chains, fastening the chains together with fishing line, and adding zippers or straps if necessary. Many hands are responsible for the finished product, in what has become a village-scale assembly line.

What if Brauburger’s raw material gets over-exploited—all the once-littered chip bags successfully refashioned as durable, re-useable bags? For better or worse, she says, that would never happen. “Eating these chips is part of the culture here.” The streets of her village, though, are now cleaner, and workers go to other towns to collect the bags. She has contacted major chip companies, who assure her they have ample chip bag waste if needed.

Brauburger’s stint with the Peace Corps is almost over, yet her commitment to basurabags.org is long-term, for “at least ten years,” she said. The project is a vital way for her to stay connected to her Honduran community while living in the States, especially since her closest friends are also employees.

North Americans have said they would pay in the hundreds of dollars to know that these bags are making a difference. Currently, prices range from $20 for a coin purse to $150 for a 15-by-8-inch tote. The proceeds are divided between wages and books. Upon returning to the States, Brauburger plans to sell the bags to boutiques in Los Angeles, Arizona, and Louisiana.

“This is my single most incredible experience in Honduras,” the crafty entrepreneur beamed. “You can’t find a bag on the streets in my town any longer. They represent money and books to the people now.”

Katherine Elizabeth Renz is a freelance journalist and a former Earth Island Journal intern.Visit www.basurabags.org to check out the beautiful bags for books.

   

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