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From trash to treasure

Trashy bags CEO stuart gold close up
Trashy Bags CEO Stuart Gold makes bags out of discarded plastic bags that litter the streets of Accra. Photo by Antoinette Sarpong. 

By Antoinette Sarpong

Stuart Gold is an entrepreneur with a rather unusual marketing strategy. His product is complete trash—and he wants everyone to know it.

“This is our most popular bag,” says Gold, holding up a tote made of water sachets, commonly sold on the streets of Ghana. “You just fold it up, toss it in your shopping cart and you’re good to go,” he says, showing off his sack like a proud papa. “The best part,” adds Gold, “it’s waterproof.”

Gold is the CEO of Trashy Bags, a non-profit organization based in Accra that makes bags and accessories out of the discarded plastic bags that litter Ghana’s streets. In Ghana’s capital alone, it’s estimated that 270 tonnes of plastic waste is produced daily. By employing 60 Ghanaians at his factory and paying around 100 locals about $0.40 CAD for every kilo of plastic they collect, Gold is  supporting the economy and saving the environment in the process.

As I walk around the immaculately clean Trashy Bags showroom in Dwozulu, an industrial suburb of Accra, I find it hard to believe that the best-selling $4.00 CAD “smart bag,” made of 20 weaved water sachets, is really just rubbish.

The crinkle of plastic floods my ears as Gold leads me downstairs to the technicoloured factory where  the 10 million bags that have been collected are sanitized and sewn into sheets of fabric. Men and women, some with babies by their sides, are working at different stations, producing over 350 different designs.  A laptop bag, I’m told by 25-year-old employee Josephine Edekor, will take two to three hours to make.

On another table, backpacks are being made with orphaned yogurt packages. I feel like I’ve stepped into an episode of Project Runway, with a motley crew of designers.

“It’s funny that I should be involved in this,” says Gold, in a charming English accent. The 57-year-old London native, who is an architect by trade, may seem an unlikely fashionista, but he’s clearly no stranger to ingenuity. 

“I remember when I was 16,” says Gold, “my parents bought a new washing machine. There was this polystyrene packaging so I took it up to my bedroom, painted it, put lights under it and made it into a sort of table.”

It’s this ability to think outside the box and all of its packaging that Gold says needs to be encouraged in Ghana.

“What we’ve been taught in the developing world is that we don’t want to fit into categories. We should think outside them. But here [in Ghana] and in Africa, in general, people don’t do that,” says Gold. “They look at something and think, ‘this is rubbish,’ and throw it away.”

The Ghanaian government has also acknowledged this problem. After abandoning plans to ban the country’s cheapest form of packaging, they created  the Recycling Taskforce in 2004.

The 16 person taskforce, made up of city officials, plastic manufacturers and water sachet producers, collects and delivers plastic bags to warehouses for recycling. But Accra’s choked gutters, beaches strewn with plastic debris and drivers tossing water sachets out car windows support statistics that show only 2 per cent of the city’s plastic waste is  recycled.

It will take time, says Gold, who co-founded Trashy Bags in 2007, to change attitudes towards the dangers of land pollution. But he’s optimistic. Trashy Bags are fast becoming a hit with Ghana’s expat community and are  sold at several retail outlets in the country. The bags are also exported overseas to Japan, Germany and Denmark and Gold hopes that more Ghanaians will embrace responsible waste disposal with better education. 

“This project is not just about cleaning up,” he says. “It’s about teaching people that they can be innovative. By disposing of our rubbish responsibly, we are teaching by example and this is the best education of all."

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Africa Without Maps

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