One man’s trash is another man’s treasure; for Lise Kuhle, founder and director of the Eco-Smart Group, the old adage is true; she’s turned waste into a profitable, socially responsible business, creating jobs, and smaller businesses, along the way.
“I designed a recycling bin a few years ago and that recycling bin sold pretty well, so I started thinking of what would go into the recycling bin and all the stuff that couldn’t be recycled,” says Kuhle. Enter Eco-Smart, which uses salvaged, recyclable and non-recyclable waste materials to produce useful everyday items such as bags, dog beds, geyser blankets, lunchboxes, cooler bags and back packs.
“So basically it’s looking at stuff that I can use as a raw material to make something else that’s substantial but isn’t a craft, which is what we don’t do,” explains Kuhle.
The bags and pencil cases the group manufactures are made from old building wraps, post industrial waste chip and peanut packets, foam and fabric waste and billboards used for advertising. Depending on the order, the products are covered in alternative fabrics to disguise these waste elements.
The raw materials like building wraps and billboards are often made from durable PVC, which is also used to make sewerage pipes, pool pumps and insulating sheaths for electric cables.
EMPOWERING JOBS AND NEW BUSINESS
The labour-intensive process of turning waste materials into functional everyday items allows the group to hire relatively unskilled workers, generating much-needed employment for people living in the informal settlements around the Germiston industrial area, where the company is based.
These employees are trained on the job, and can opt to remain with Eco-Smart as fulltime manufacturing employees, as trainers, or to branch out and open their own businesses selling Eco-Smart products, or as entrepreneurs in their own right.
Eco-Smart employees learn how to use domestic- and industrial-grade sewing machines to make aprons and dresses using discarded materials like old pillow cases, or stitch bags and pencil cases made from PVC.
Employees also learn carpentry.
Kuhle says repurposing waste works very well because “you don’t pay for the raw materials; all the raw materials are donated, but there is still a value in waste and that value isn’t lost”.
“We don’t have to pay for the raw material so our major cost is labour and that’s great for job creation.
“Here with the skills development we train them [employees] to make things that don’t look like they were made from waste and have a retail value so that they can make money and also give some money to the centre because we trained them.”
SUSTAINABLE AND EMPOWERING BUSINESSES
This pay-it-forward system makes the group sustainable, and provides funding to train new employees. It empowers employees to create their own source of income and reduces the organisation’s dependence on donations and sponsorships.
To further assist employees, Eco-Smart has a daycare centre where employees’ children are cared for while their parents are at work.
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