Crafty thinking: a New Zealander's plastic-bag initiative in Cambodia

13:50, Jul 25 2009
Ruth Yoffe with an example of Reloop Designs' work.

RUTH YOFFE would be the first to admit that Reloop Designs won't end poverty and save the world from drowning in plastic. But it is making a small difference.

While her fellow New Zealanders grumble about the cost and environmental impact of supermarket bags, the Aucklander has been quietly hard at work in an impoverished corner of Cambodia, leading an initiative that turns waste plastic into beautiful, colourful handicrafts.

Each basket, belt or pot is also proof of the way that Reloop Designs has offered a better life to poor and disabled Cambodians.

Yes, it is heartwarming, says Yoffe, who turned her back on a career in product design in New York to do something worthwhile with her skills.

And on the surface, the process seems so straightforward. Crochet needles turn rubbish into artwork for sale in eco-boutiques in the United States, ticking all the feel-good boxes along the way environmental benefit, economic independence and Kiwi can-do.

Heartwarming yes. Straightforward, never.

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The story of Reloop Designs has been a saga of continuing frustration, starting from the very first day she arrived in Kampot 18 months ago, thinking she was helping out with an existing project, only to discover that she was starting from virtually nothing.

"I decided I could either have a nervous breakdown or make the best of it," she says from New York, where she is currently organising sales and trying to attract funding. (And yes, approaching a certain former New Zealand prime minister who has just arrived in town as the new head of the United Nations development programme could be one tactic).

For Yoffe, that first day in Kampot was a nightmare. She could not speak Khmer, and hardly anyone in the town could speak English. On the other hand, poverty and waste plastic were everywhere.

It wasn't as if Yoffe had no experience in development issues. After all, she spent her childhood in nations as diverse as Botswana and Indonesia because her father worked for the UN programme that Helen Clark now leads.

But in Kampot his daughter had no United Nations team, just a pitiful budget, her own initiative and crucially, it turned out her computer with an internet connection.

Finding a translator, she went to the town market to buy crochet needles and yarn in preparation for teaching the group of disabled Cambodians who, she had learned on arrival, would be turning up the next day.

She also urgently had to find help providing the crochet training this group would need, and the search for people with these skills demonstrated the depth of Cambodia's problems.

"I've seen incredible poverty around the world, but people in those countries still had their textile skills," she says.

However, the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s destroyed an entire generation of skills and knowledge.

"Cambodia is like a computer with its hard drive wiped out. The education system is truly appalling. And nobody talks about their history. They haven't even told their children what they lived through.

"On the outside, they're the warmest, welcoming people, but underneath, there's a lot of stuff. They lost their heritage of handicrafts."

Even if no one discussed the Khmer Rouge, its legacy was all around. The vacuum of knowledge meant a tragic ignorance of medicine until recently, polio was rampant, and treatable conditions such as ear infections progressed to permanent deafness and a life on the margins of society.

The day after Yoffe arrived, the two dozen such people who assembled to meet her were incredulous at the idea that anyone could see value in plastic rubbish, but also appreciative that someone had come so far to help them.

THAT WAS when, at last, things began to improve. Yoffe's crochet mission had turned up two elderly women with some basic skills, and she had brought some ideas for designs with her from New York. Plastic bags were collected, washed, turned into yarn and crochet instruction began.

"In that first week I was so touched at how hard everyone worked. They were so enthusiastic, I was taken aback I'd never seen that sort of tenacity. Within about three weeks, the results were quite amazing."

This was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Amid the heat, mosquitoes, poverty and noise an enormous pig occupied a stall close by in the building where they worked Reloop Designs started turning rubbish into handicrafts that would eventually go on sale in eco-boutiques in New York, Wisconsin and Maryland, and in private sales (one last week raised $US800).

The nature of the project means mass production will never be an option, but to Yoffe, that's a selling point. Each bag, belt or basket comes with the artisan's name, "every piece of work comes with a story".

But even though Yoffe was working at a manic pace, creating designs to match the levels of expertise and keeping transparent financial records, she faced her next exercise in setback-management the money was running out.

Fair wages were important. "I want them to have a life. The average wage there is $2 a day they're not surviving on that, everything has gone up. The people who work for the big retailers making jeans are like indentured slaves."

The shipping costs from Cambodia to the US were also horrendous.

That was where the computer came in. "It wouldn't have been possible without the internet," she says, describing her appeal to family and friends for funds to keep the project going. They responded and it was a rewarding moment to realise that yes, something good was happening.

Even success brought its own problems. Yoffe was gratified when other development organisations showed interest in the concept, because she had not planned to stay long-term and it would have eased the pressure on her "I'm not Wonder Woman".

But it quickly became clear they would have hijacked the idea and abandoned her team. Yoffe and the artisans would have none of that.

By this stage, her visa was also running out, and she decided she could not keep approaching friends and family for money. She describes a quite heartbreaking meeting with the Reloop workers when she left them the remaining funds before returning to stay with her boyfriend in New York, exhausted and unemployed, where she is now keeping the project going from a distance.

But in New York, it was like the clock had stopped. Friends were out of work. Retailers were not buying. Charities had no money. Just when she was confident that Reloop could offer consistent quality and a catalogue, the global financial meltdown had arrived.

She says many people are having to re-evaluate their lives, just as she did when she left New York in November 2007.

Despite the constant stress since then, and the financial cost to her personally, Yoffe has no regrets, and she is constantly aware of how successes and setbacks affect the lives of the team in Cambodia.

"I'm very motivated, in a way I had not felt about my work previously. This means everything to me, this is a turning point."

Anyone with organisational/information/contacts/skills that could help the project can contact Ruth Yoffe at Reloop Designs: www.reloopdesigns.org or reloopdesigns@gmail.com (for shipping prices to New Zealand)

Yoffe has a PayPal account for purchases/donations. All revenue goes to the artisans.

Sunday Star Times