‘Approximately one million plastic bags are handed out every minute around the world, but here in Egypt only a fraction of people recycle them,’ says Mariam Hazem, 23, the co-founder of Reform Studio. Her studio is set up to create high-design objects out of low-grade plastic bags. The idea came as Mariam sought to find an immediate way to put the ubiquitous bags found by roadsides and in landfill to good use. ‘Recycling consumes energy and resources,’ she notes, ‘but this can be avoided by directly upcycling the bags in new products we design.’
The first step was to turn these used bags into a fabric that Reform Studio has called Plastex: after collection, the bags are sterilised, cut into strips and then woven on a manual handloom.
Asides being useful to the environment, Reform Studio is playing its part in reviving a traditional, Egyptian craft that was once handed down like a legacy but is now dying out, to a degree that even Mariam had not bargained for. ‘I scoured Cairo looking for workshops where we could put Plastex to the test, only to find they had all disappeared!’ She was finally able to find some former artisans, who were initially sceptical about following this ‘crazy’ enterprise, peddled by a young woman with a loom adapted for the material. ‘It took some time, but now they weave one square metre of Plastex in 30 minutes!’
Productivity is key because Reform Studio is making quite a name for itself. After launching with a recycling bag to separate trash in 2012, the all-girl design team has produced four collections, including ‘Grammys’, a colourful revival of a 1960s chair. The company has won some prestigious awards and is preparing to export its products to Kuwait, Rome and London, after garnering keen interest at the Salone del Mobile in Milan this spring.
The company has set up its own workshop, built its own loom and employs three designers and four workers, the latter working on a contract basis depending on workload. ‘Our next order is 36 chairs for a store that will open in London Design Week,’ says Mariam, who is already dreaming of using Plastex in fashion to broaden its reach further. ‘We need to spread the idea of upcycling and sustainability throughout Egypt!’
Mariam cites the Arab Spring revolution, which erupted while she was a third-year design student, as a major motivator for starting her enterprise. ‘I decided that if I wanted to change others and help society and the environment, I should start with myself.’ Plastex was her graduation project at the German University in Cairo, which advocated Germany’s proactive attitude to ecology and recycling. ‘It helped me gain a broad vision of just how much you can do with trash,’ Mariam explains.
Invented in 1957, plastic bags have not yet revealed how long they will litter the earth before fully decomposing, but scientists estimate their life span at anywhere between 500 and 1,000 years. A thought to mull over while sitting in a Reform Studio chair.