CAIRO — Strolling through Lisbon's hilltop alleys in 2008, I came across a shop selling uniquely designed "upcycled" products, things made by reusing material that would otherwise be discarded. The items there included a milk-carton wallet, a liquor-bottle lamp and a cereal-box notebook cover.
In my young, hopeful state, I felt right at home. It embodied how I wanted people to live: without waste, with creativity and with possessions that carry a cause.
The shop wasn't one of a kind, of course. Due to awareness campaigns, the economically privileged around the world were shifting consumption habits and looking for organic, locally produced and environmentally friendly food, clothes, furniture and transport. Designers, farming initiatives and business people were stepping up to be part of the movement.
At the time, upcycling wasn't big in Egypt in product design, and I couldn't understand why. But because I had the narrow reference frame of what I'd seen in European hipster shops, I missed the fact that this has been happening in daily life for generations. It's more evident in the countryside — but all over Cairo, you see repurposed old glass jars, tuna-can ashtrays and plastic-crate chairs.
Now, one also finds a growing interest among young, upper middle-class city dwellers in creating their own furniture from leftover bottles, wood and car tires. And designers have recently started to catch on. Several are included in Dubai Design Week's Cairo Now! A City Incomplete exhibition.
Making treasures from trash
Two of these upcycling outfits transform plastic bags — the second most commonly wasted material in Egypt — into beautifully colorful fabrics, out of which they create their products.
Up-Fuse, a social design enterprise initiated by Rana Rafie and Yara Yassin during their university studies in Berlin in 2013, repurposes neglected plastic bags into colorful and durable backpacks, tote bags, wallets and cases.
It brings Rafie and Yassin's passion for design together with their experience in green technology and social development: Rafie ran the fabrication lab for green technology startup IceCairo, while Yassin worked with the United Nations in Upper Egypt to support Nubians producing handicrafts.
The designers are collaborating with Roh al-Shabab (Youth Soul), an NGO in the garbage collectors' district Manshiet Nasser, on the upcycling process of plastic bags.
"We taught them how to process and clean the bags in an environmentally friendly and hygienic way, which they do in their spare time to create income," Rafie tells me. "Part of our revenue goes to the NGO for education and hygiene awareness programs."
Up-Fuse also works with artisans in north Cairo's Warraq district to create designs out of the material created at Rouh al-Shabab. They say they want to support local production because a lot of workshops are closing.
"In Egypt, as much as we're a developing country, we produce a lot of waste. Pollution is one of the biggest problems we face," Rafie adds. "We have so much treasure that we don't see. There are endless possibilities to be done with all the waste generated."
Reform Studio is another initiative creating products from plastic waste, focusing upholstering furniture with a fabric made from plastic bags and recycled cotton threads that they call Plastix. It too emerged in 2013 and was born out of a university project: Hend Hafez and Mariam Hazem started working together at the German University in Cairo.
"We never design for the sake of design," Hazem says. "It has to solve a problem." Their solution is to create upholstery, beach clutches, placemats and rugs. People donate plastic bags through a continuously expanding network, and Reform Studio works with home-based craftswomen to weave their signature material.
Inspired by both their city and their material, Reform Studio's collections include painting and adding new cushioning to iconic Cairo cafe chairs; vibrant reupholstering of 1960s metal frame chairs; and their latest collection, Chaotic Design, focuses on Cairo's street chairs.
Reform Studio is interested in making consumers aware of their products' environmental and social impact. Their "Grammy's Collection" chairs bear labels reading: "Each chair is created using 152 wasted plastic bags by the hand of 1 craftsman's work and 3 housewives' effort."
Reform Studio and Up-Fuse focus on selling products in both Egypt and abroad, saying markets are more attuned to their outputs elsewhere. The founders of both initiatives do know their products cost more than the average price of similar items.
"We try to make it clear that it's not that we're expensive, but it is the other products that are cheap," Rafie says. "Since we support a movement of conscious consumption where you can choose to buy one product that lives longer, instead of buying 10 bags, you can buy one or two. We really consider the lifespan of the product."
"Each piece is unique. That's part of why handmade products are always more expensive," Hafez says, adding that Reform Studio has various price ranges. "Not all eco-friendly products are expensive."
While Up-Fuse and Reform Studio have a holistic approach that keeps in mind the environment and craftspeople's livelihoods, other upcyclers have a more purely aesthetic approach.
Block B furniture founder Ahmed Abouzeid, who left a corporate life in advertising to turn to chairs and couches, uses design to mirror Cairo's random urban reality. Through paint, colored pins, fabrics, cowhide, leather and plastics, he transforms the often gold-plated Louis Farouk furniture found in Egyptian homes into surprising, edgy explosions.
"I like the nod to the classical, to our history, to our shared culture, to our society. My work tends to be over the top. It's sort of commentary on urban culture," he says. "They're beautiful pieces, hand made in Egypt and crafted really well. But I look at them as works of art."
Dina Naguib, another former member of the advertising world, runs a project called Ehem that has two collections: water pipes repurposed into lighting solutions, shelves and shoes (This is Not a Pipe) and old meat grinders turned into lamps (The Meatless Grinder). The collections tap into nostalgia through their vintage starting point, but the materials and finishing lend the finished products an industrial look.
Many other Egyptian designers and NGOs are approaching materials in innovative ways. Gazwareen, for example, uses Mediterranean driftwood to create furniture. The Association for the Protection of the Environment has long worked with communities in Manshiet Nasser, and Al-Nafeza uses agricultural waste, such as rice straw, to create paper-based products.
And with Egypt's high pollution levels, prolific waste, unconsidered consumption habits and under-employment, the recent and growing focus on upcycling has potential to become sustainable and widespread.
*This text is part of a collaboration with Cairobservor on the occasion of Cairo Now! City Incomplete, curated by Cairobserver's Mohamed Elshahed, at Dubai Design Week.