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Work's team in Haiti examines some of the fabric made from the collected plastic. First Mile

Of the 8.3 metric tons of plastic produced in this world to date, 6.3 billion tons of that is trash, and less than 10% of it is recycled, which has created a global crisis, not just with the environment, but our health. 

Microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic debris, which result from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste — are now ever-present pollutants now found to be in most places in the world, from marine life to the top of Mt. Everest, and now our bloodstreams

Of the 8.3 metric tons of plastic produced in this world to date, 6.3 billion tons of that is trash, and less than 10% of it is recycled, which has created a global crisis, not just with the environment, but our health. 

Microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic debris, which result from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste — are now ever-present pollutants now found to be in most places in the world, from marine life to the top of Mt. Everest, and now our bloodstreams

Plastic pollution also disproportionately affects marginalized communities and communities living near plastic waste sites. 

According to a report from the United Nations, polluting facilities and industries — particularly the companies drilling for the oil that helps make plastic — are often placed in vulnerable communities, who are now subject to toxins from plastic incineration as well as other hazards from disposal. Those who rely on marine life for food are also ingesting toxins from contaminated water sources.

Ground soil in these communities is also being contaminated, making it difficult to rely on agriculture for economic stability and local food security. 

Some companies, organizations, policymakers and governments are working with both national and regional initiatives, many of which are led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to create a more circular economy, and have an industry-scale change to end plastic pollution. 

Currently, several brands are using repurposed plastic bottles in their products to help divert the waste stream, particularly in fashion, which is a large source of plastic waste pollution

However, according to Ian Rosenberger, CEO of Thread International, it’s going to take more than companies diverting waste streams to solve the plastic crisis — it’s going to take empowering low-income communities in order to create sustainable change.

Thread is one of the companies that turns plastic waste from developing countries into fabric and other materials for big brands, as well as its own recycled Day Owl backpacks.

Alongside its sister company WORK, they have founded the First Mile Initiative, which helps bring full transparency of who and what happens to the first mile of recycled waste supply chains, and holistically supports waste collectors in Haiti, Honduras, and Taiwan, while connecting brands to the communities they positively impact.  

First Mile’s campaign to make plastic waste a resource had turned more than 100 million bottles into shoes, clothes, backpacks, and printer cartridges by July 15, 2020. firstmileimpact / Instagram

And the companies’ support doesn’t just end at the waste collectors and workers, but involves their families and others in the communities in which they operate.

“Environmental justice cannot be solved in the absence of social justice,” said Vivien Luk, executive director of WORK. 

Before expanding through First Mile, WORK’s operations began in Haiti, where they continue to follow their mission to “accompany families out of poverty through good, dignified jobs,” while also working to remove roadblocks to their success. 

With an impact team based in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Port-au-Prince, WORK ensures open access to medical care, access to education for children, as well as giving families other tools to empower themselves towards long-term independence — and they commit to the families entirely until they are no longer needed. 

“[We’ve] decided to grow the organization in accordance with that ideal of serving a person completely instead of serving a million of them an inch deep,” said Rosenberger.

He added that they don’t just go into any communities thinking they have the answers. They walk in asking how they can be allies to help people with whatever they are going through with the end goal being full agency and dignity.  

 “By and large, they’re incredible business people, entrepreneurs, and workers [that I’ve met],” he says. 

How It Began

The companies grew out of an initial trip Rosenberger took to Port-au-Prince in 2010 to help out with disaster relief after a catastrophic 7.0 earthquake destroyed buildings and homes, displacing many and killing more than 200,000 people.

On that trip he met a young man who needed a life-saving medical procedure, and asked Rosenberger if he could help. Rosenberger and his friends then committed to raising money and finding resources, and were eventually able to get him to the United States where he could get the procedure done. 

Afterwards, when Rosenberger accompanied him home, he felt he needed to do more.

Noticing all of the plastic waste and how few jobs there were, when he later discovered that plastic bottles could be transformed into fabric, he and his team of friends then reached out to a bunch of global brands trying to convince them to build factories in Haiti. 

After none of the companies took them seriously, they decided to make fabric out of waste on their own.

By 2013, Thread became a certified B Corp business — which means they met the standards of performance, accountability and transparency in contributing to an equitable and regenerative economy. It would still be three years before 2015, when apparel and footwear company Timberland signed on to be their first brand collaboration, making a line of boots and bags with Thread’s material. 

They now also work with Ralph Lauren, Marmot, Reebok, Puma, Aerie, Converse and others.

As they were supporting the waste collectors and building the company, Thread and Work’s team also expanded from taking care of that one young man to helping meet the needs of five families which they stuck with for four years.

One of WORK’s business entrepreneurs in Haiti selling essential items at her business allowing financial independence for her and her family. WORK

According to Luk, they hadn’t yet had a solid model, and had no business taking on any more families until they had one.  

Now their endeavors encompass 700 families across Haiti.

As for plastic, they’ve since diverted more than 6 million pounds of plastic waste from landfills and oceans, with more than 130 million plastic bottles recycled into useful products while helping people earn a dignified income.

While other similar initiatives have also taken place in Haiti, none have been so intimately involved with the families, and mostly incentivized waste picking with money. 

However, there have been a lot of setbacks in the last few years, part of which involved COVID, which put a halt to Run Across Haiti, one of their largest fundraisers, and forced them into layoffs. They were eventually able to hire everyone back after the company pivoted to making personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers

Then there was the assassination of the Haiti’s president last July, which has made things complicated and dangerous for the waste collectors and their other families, but they are enduring and figuring out systems amidst the chaos anyway, said Luk. 

“We’re trying to be as supportive of our families and workers as we can,” she added.

Another setback came prior to the assasination, with a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that devastated the southwestern region of the country. Some of their waste collectors were in the middle of the devastation.

According to Rosenberger, the tech company HP — which has been a brand partner since 2016 and utilizes the company’s recycled material in their ink cartridges — donated some of the money necessary to get a team on the ground to see what happened, as well as helped airlift 15,000 pounds of medical supplies to those affected. 

The team to respond were people who, ten years ago, were part of Thread and WORK’s early support programming, now empowered enough to lend help themselves. 

“They went to [these peoples’] homes in the same way that my friends and I went to their homes,” Rosenberger said.

Moving Forward

Thread and WORK are currently wanting to expand First Mile in Asia, Africa, and in parts of the United States, where they are specifically looking at how waste impacts Indigenous communities and how proper waste management might help benefit them as well.

In the meantime, Rosenberger said he’s attended several conferences where many companies and organizations talk about wanting to make systemic changes, but say the process will be “complex,” which he feels is a lie.  

He believes that it’s simple and involves changing business models, and is necessary particularly for chemical companies, petrochemical companies and oil producers. 

2021 study published by the Mindaroo Foundation, said that only 100 companies produce 90% of all single-use plastic-waste generated globally, with ExxonMobil topping the list.

Though frustrated, Rosenberger said complaining about these companies on Twitter or calling them evil doesn’t work when it comes to creating change and he doesn’t want to spend the next 20 years locking horns with companies much larger than him, either. 

“We are at the point where you have to love the people you are built to despise. You have to love what they stand for. In loving all of those things, [maybe you] can come up with a solution you both believe in,” he said.

He added: “How do we figure out a way to make those people feel like it’s okay to come into the light? If we [are able to] do that, it’s game over.”

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Circle Pack is a grassroots effort in Hawaii to turn cardboard waste into usable material for farmers to improve soil quality. Circle Pack

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, paper and cardboard were the largest components of municipal solid waste in the United States with citizens throwing away a total of 67.4 million tons a year. 

Around 68 percent of that was recycled, while the other 32 percent was either incinerated or left in increasingly overstuffed landfills where it releases methane as it deteriorates. 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, paper and cardboard were the largest components of municipal solid waste in the United States with citizens throwing away a total of 67.4 million tons a year. 

Around 68 percent of that was recycled, while the other 32 percent was either incinerated or left in increasingly overstuffed landfills where it releases methane as it deteriorates. 

More toxic than carbon dioxide, methane is one of the leading contributors to climate change, and in 2019, the EPA recorded that methane from landfills contributes to 15.1% of overall emissions in the U.S. 

In Hawaii, while some cardboard inevitably ends up in overstuffed landfills, most cardboard is packaged and sent thousands of miles to Asia due to a lack of their own recycling facilities, which, while better than the alternative, is costly and leaves a pretty hefty carbon footprint.  

Because of this, some residents have taken it into their own hands to find better solutions. 

Circle Pack, a mobile grassroots cardboard shredding organization located in Hawaii County (also known as the Big Island) has been stepping in with solutions that are not only sustainable for the environment, but also bring Hawaii more self-reliance, and communities together in the process. 

Founded in 2020 by 29-year-old Evan Lam, the company travels to several partner organizations, where residents and area businesses drop off hundreds of pounds of clean cardboard to be shredded by community volunteers and either used for packaging or given away as mulch or composting materials for farms and gardens.

Circle Pack

“One of the biggest responses that I see happening kind of all over the world, and here in Hawaii, is localization,” said Lam. “The more that we can do and process and take care of things at a local or regional level that’s kind of geographically bounded, the further we can get in just eliminating sources of greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Lam was born and raised in Hawaii, and had long been interested in sustainability, first through his participation in high school with conservation nonprofit KUPU — which provides land stewardship and service-learning opportunities for youth — then later in San Francisco through the youth-led climate justice group the Sunrise Movement.

However, Circle Pack came out of a conversation he had with his mothers, who own a non-toxic nail polish business and do a lot of e-commerce. 

At the time, they were paying a packaging company in California exorbitant shipping fees that cost more than the materials they were buying to ship their merchandise, so Lam did a little bit of research on making packaging from cardboard and bought a machine to start making materials for the family business himself.  

“And then that quickly kind of moved to more,” he said, particularly after being introduced to one of his early partners, Chantal Chung, who has a larger vermicomposting operation, and was in desperate need of more brown matter to sustain it.

Chung is the co-founder of Ma’ona Community Garden in South Kona, which is not so much a garden as much as a dense haven of cultural and sustainable food systems to fill the security and health needs of the community, particularly the oft-disenfranchised Native Hawaiian community. 

Besides an abundant food forest, and several garden plots where families can grow their own crops for free, Chung’s vermicomposting operation involves sixteen forty-by-four-foot worm bins she uses to process food waste from Ma’ona’s partners at Hawaii’s Ulu Cooperative, a co-op made of over 80 local farmers that among many things do e-commerce, and also farm-to-school initiatives. 

Before scaling back and finding other partners to compost, at one point she was taking in a thousand pounds of food waste a day to avoid having it go to the landfill, where like cardboard, it also produces methane while decomposing, and in 2018, constituted for 21 percent of total municipal solid waste from commercial, institutional and residential sectors in the U.S. at 63.1 million tons.

Chung, whose grandparents were coffee farmers, were the ones who not only taught her about the importance of worms, which she said is the third animal mentioned in the Kumulipo (the sacred Hawaiian creation chant), but also cardboard, which her grandfather laid in the coffee fields and in between rows. 

Cardboard not only helps sequester carbon in the soil, but as it decomposes, it supplies essential energy to the microbes, improving soil quality and structure and making it an easy and affordable option for those in agriculture. 

Before serendipitously meeting Lam, she began hauling it in herself from various locations and shredding the cardboard by hand.  

Circle Pack

“And he [already] has the shredded paper waste,” she said. “What’s lovely about cardboard being shredded is it increases the microbial and fungal infiltration, which decreases the time for it to break down.” 

Since they met, she’s established a 24/7 community cardboard dropoff, and every third Saturday of the month, she and Lam hold a shred day, where community volunteers help shred hundreds of pounds of clean cardboard from area residents and businesses. 

Chung keeps around 1000 pounds for Ma’ona and shares the rest with area farmers. 

“There is definitely a need in the community,” said Kiana Vallente, the administrative director at Hamakua Harvest, an agricultural hub in Waimea that hosted Circle Pack at their farmer’s market for the first time in late February. 

She said a lot of people came up and asked questions, which was a nice opportunity to educate them about where their recycling usually goes and how they are trying to keep things on island. Prior to pairing up with Circle Pack, Vallente also had no idea where her cardboard was going. 

“The gardeners and farmers got really excited,” she said, adding that the farmers at the market selling produce took a bunch of shredded cardboard home with them to use on their farms. “It was really awesome to see that full circle effect.”

Circle Pack

According to Lam, at the market that day, they shredded around 350 pounds of cardboard, which he claimed was the busiest first day at a marketplace he’s ever done.   

To date, Lam said that he had shredded 22,200 pounds since he began a little over a year ago, which was helpful, particularly during the pandemic when transfer stations were understaffed because of COVID-19. This left certain cardboard bins filled to capacity, without any room to take more, leading to more cardboard ending up at the landfill.

As it is, in late 2019, the county decided to stop collecting plastic and paper, citing significant decreases in global recycling markets, then later because private contractor Business Services Hawaii could no longer afford to process most plastics. 

Now unless residents, local government entities, or other organizations find alternatives, most of this goes to the West Hawaii landfill, since the other landfill on the island had to permanently close in 2020, because it was packed to capacity with 3 million tons of refuse.

For a while, like Circle Pack, grassroots efforts to deal with the problem cropped up through an organization called Puna Precious Plastics, which operated under a larger international organization called Precious Plastics, but according to their social media, due to unforeseen complications and COVID-19 safety, it shut down in 2020. 

Since then, others like Volcano Precious Plastics have emerged making planters and pavers out of Hi-5 plastics.  

As for cardboard, Circle Pack has been offering free demos to draw in communities, but then charges a fee for their services for later bookings. The organization has also been getting some funding through Hawaii County.

“How do we take what we have and make what we need so we don’t have to look outside of Hawaii?” Chung said, adding, “The most important thing to develop these kinds of projects is not about the funding. It’s partnerships, human resources — it’s that ability to connect to each other.”

She hopes that what they’re doing will be an example for neighboring islands, where they can see how rich in resources the practice is and its potential for community-based economic development.

Lam said he doesn’t know that his goal is to recycle 100% of the cardboard locally, but that it seemed like they’d be able to cut out a large chunk of that waste stream and use it as much as they could as long as people saw value in it.  

“It’s the process of kind of learning to be part of the world,” he said. “Being in the mix, as far as actual processes and politics and systems, instead of commenting from the outside,” adding that the question at the core of this is: “How do we bring our relationship with nature into better harmony?”

Circle Pack

Libby Leonard is a Hawaii-based journalist with work in National Geographic, SF Gate, Yes! Magazine, The Guardian, Civil Eats, and Modern Farmer. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Circle Pack received assistance through a Build Back Better grant, but as a for-profit business it is not eligible for that grant.

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