“People take pleasure in reading ‘genuine leather’ when they buy a product, and don’t take into account the animal that was killed to make it, so we named it ‘genuine leather’ as an inside joke,” said Yara Yassin.
Yassin and Rania Refai, both product designers, started Genuine Plastic Bags as an eco-friendly model that makes use of the abundance of plastic bags Egypt does not recycle.
Instead of recycling, Refai and Yassin want Egyptians to “upcycle”, or convert waste into functional materials and products.
“In Egypt we have the capability to produce a lot of plastic, but we do not have the infrastructure to recycle it. Plastic has a polymer structure and takes 500 years to decompose naturally,” said Yassin.
“Discarded plastic bags are making their way into our water; we find them floating in the Red Sea and if an animal consumes them, they will die because they cannot digest it. We’ve seen this happen to camels in Egypt,” she added.
Their idea started as a graduation project, based on a learning experience in Germany, “we learned how to iron plastic and make products out of it and wanted to take this model to Egypt and show people how easy it was for them to do it,” said Yassin.
Yassin said they shared their knowledge with a Syrian refugee family with female family members who did not go out of the house and could not work: “After the third time, they got the hang of it and it can become a sustainable source of income for them.”
Genuine Plastic Bags says upcycling means they can turn plastic bags into material that is suitable for wet and dry weather, with products ranging from fashion bags and bookmarks to cell phone, laptop and tablet covers.
“We try to make products that are useful and not just aesthetically pleasing. For example, we make bags for shoes when people are travelling; people usually use a plastic bag to wrap their shoes in and then discard it, and we want them to have one that they can keep reusing,” said Yassin.
“Unfortunately, we do not have a culture where people might consider paying extra to benefit the environment or encourage local production, and so our competition is not other eco-friendly businesses but big established companies that produce bags and other similar products,” she added.
Because their designs depend on the graphical elements on the plastic bags used, each design is unique but customers can choose based on the shapes of models they preview.
Helping the environment and the country solve its problem of plastic bags is about the bigger issue of developing in a sustainable manner for Yassin and Refai: “Egypt is a developing country, and like all developing countries, it looks at developing as quickly as possible without much attention to its resources. We cannot afford this and we want to see it change.”