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September 24, 2019

An Upcycling Initiative From Athens Lovingly Repurposes Discarded Plastic Bags

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

Christened after the colloquial name for plastic bag in Hindi, Théla’s pouches, accessories, jewellery and home decor products are India-born Diti’s answer to the world’s burgeoning plastic disposal problems

Growing up in Mumbai in the ’80s, Diti Kotecha was far removed from a world that would go on to grapple with an apocalyptic plastic-disposal problem. Fast food restaurants were far and few in between and supermarket chains remained conspicuous by their absence, which meant single-use, disposable products like toilet paper, nappies and kitchen rolls were yet to become ubiquitous in the graphic designer’s life. It was only when liberalisation became the word du jour in 1991 that a host of international brands flooded India and the country’s commodities market grew by leaps and bounds. The economic advancement brought with it the need to consume (and feverishly at that), the result of which is now a reality that is the nightmare of Diti and fellow-conscious environment warriors like her — a planet on the brink of extinction.

When she moved to Athens around three years ago, Diti was confronted by an environmental conundrum which was a lot graver than the one she faced back home — Europeans believed that plastic waste was simply a by-product of a modern lifestyle. Having lived through the emergence of plastic in her own country, Diti was more sensitive to its impact in her new home and was determined to do something about it. Combining her knowledge of design and her love for all things handmade, she started a plastic upcycling initiative that handcrafts products with discarded plastic bags, sweetly christening it Théla which colloquially translates into ‘plastic bag’ in Hindi. From pouches and accessories to jewellery and home decor products, Théla’s vibrant design encourages you to embrace an alliterative way of living — covet commodities consciously.

Did your training as a graphic designer shape your ideas for Théla?
I started my graphic design journey by working at a big corporate branding agency. Not having any previous background in graphic design, I learned everything on the job and it was exhilarating — working on big consumer brands, seeing my designs on popular shampoo bottles or stumbling upon my artworks on large hoardings. However, gradually, while researching and designing for these fast-moving consumer products, I learned about the unnecessary and harmful ingredients used in the products and their packaging. This was a turning point for me — I consciously began to steer clear of the emerging consumer culture and gravitated towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Soon, I left my job and began freelancing as a graphic designer for social start-ups and ethical ventures.

What is the significance of plastic in Théla’s story?
I started Théla not only to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the landfills and oceans but also to increase awareness about its impact and alternatives. Plastic, whether single-use or reusable, is the worst kind of material to dispose into the environment, however responsibly it is done.

Single-use plastic requires a lot of energy and resources to manufacture and is used for only a few minutes before it is discarded. It goes into landfills where, depending on the type of plastic, it takes anywhere between 10 to 1,000 years to fully decompose before which it breaks down into tiny, toxic particles that contaminate our soil, plants and the food we eat. Plastic also enters the oceans, killing millions of birds, fish and marine animals each year who get tangled in the waste or mistake it for food.

At Théla, we upcycle plastic because it is not as energy-intensive as recycling. Less than 10% of plastic is actually recycled and the process of recycling consumes a lot of energy. And unlike metal and glass, there is a limit to the number of times plastic can be recycled.

Can you take us through your process of upcycling plastic?
At the moment, we work solely with plastic bags that have previously been used and discarded. We employ crochet and weaving techniques and the process is basically to convert the plastic bags into yarn before it is crocheted or woven.

The crocheted products are made entirely by me in Athens. I first gather the plastic bags from garbage bins, laïkis (local fruit and vegetable markets), streets and various collection points like small shops, yoga studios and workspaces that support us by keeping a box for people to drop off their used plastic bags. The bags are then hand-washed and dried, meticulously cut by hand into yarn and finally crocheted and sewn into unique pieces.

For the woven products, I work with like-minded, ethical organisations in India. The durable woven textiles are made entirely with discarded plastic bags by a cultural craft centre called Khamir in Kutch, Gujarat. The collecting, cleaning and cutting process is similar to the one I follow for the crocheted products but it’s on a much larger scale since Khamir collects approximately 100 kilos of plastic bags a month from bhangaar wadas (government waste collection points). They are washed, dried and segregated by colour and quantity, cut into yarn and finally handwoven on traditional looms. The textiles are then tailored into products by a fair trade NGO, C. C. Shroff Self Help Centre in Mumbai.

What drew you towards Khamir in Kutch? Do you face any difficulties in production due to the ecology of the region?
Many years ago, while I was still living in India, a friend from Matsya Crafts had taken me to Khamir during one of her work visits. I was fascinated with the process and scale at which they collected, washed, cut and wove the plastic and made up my mind that I would collaborate with them if I ever became an entrepreneur.  Kutch is a vast desert region that is sparsely populated, but despite these hurdles, our association functions like clockwork. The region is known for reviving and contemporising traditional crafts and presenting them to international audiences.

The weaving for Théla is done in India, while the crochet is done in Greece. Why?
Currently, I do all the crocheting myself in Greece but I would love to expand my venture by working with women who know how to crochet or unemployed refugees who are looking to learn a new skill.

Since weaving with plastic yarn already exists in Khamir on such a large scale, it only makes sense to work with them. In many ways, India will always be home and supporting ethical, like-minded organisations from my motherland will always come naturally to me. Apart from working with Khamir in Kutch and C. C. Shroff in Mumbai, my plans for the near future involve collaborating with organic cotton retailers for the lining of the products. I would also like to work with fashion designers from India to make clothing with woven fabrics.

Your family and friends are also a part of this initiative. Tell us how they came to join you and the kind of support you’ve received from them.
My mother, Lata, who lives in India and has as a great deal of experience with handicrafts and event management, helps with Théla’s operations back home. John, my husband and co-founder of an upcycled fashion label, 3QUARTERS, sews the crocheted products, besides handling the website and product photography. My friend Veena, co-founder, editor and content strategist at Sirius Interactive is the genius behind the brand name and advises me on website content and strategy. In my case, too many cooks make the broth better!

How do you practise sustainability?
Sustainable living is all about being mindful of the positive and negative impact of one’s actions on the environment, having the sensitivity and inclination to change and the creativity to make these changes in everyday life.

My main aim is to live minimally — to be mindful of all the things I use and dispose of and to subsequently think of waste-free alternatives or ways to discard them responsibly. There are reusable and eco-friendly alternatives to all single-use plastic items — I use bamboo toothbrushes and earbuds, package-free soap and shampoo bars, a menstrual cup instead of sanitary napkins, a jet spray and cloth napkins instead of toilet paper. I buy food in bulk and lug them in my cloth bags and compost all raw food and dry paper waste. I also try to live responsibly by following a vegan diet, buying handmade, ethical or second-hand from charity stores and thrift shops.

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