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Turning trash into fashion

Environmentally-conscious firm in Ghana recycles plastic bags into stylish totes.

ACCRA, Ghana — Quenching your thirst costs a few cents in Ghana’s capital city, where street vendors sell purified water in clear plastic bags.

But environmental and public health costs are much higher. Empty sachets are tossed to the ground because there’s no comprehensive recycling program and few trash cans. The bags clog storm drains, which leads to flooding and increased risk of diseases like malaria.

One solution is to turn the trash into totes — and purses, and sports bags. That’s the idea behind Trashy Bags, an NGO that retrieves water and ice cream sachets from the streets, scrubs them clean and sews them into usable items.

“For most people who come as a tourist, the amount of waste on the street here, we’re just not used to it, so it’s shocking,” said Carma Lovely, a Colorado native living in Accra. “I don’t think that in this culture they know the long-term effect of it.”

British-born Stuart Gold was working on a global warming project when he and his former business partner, a Ghanaian, came up with the idea. It’s been a hit, especially with environmentally conscious expatriates. Trashy Bags has removed more than 10 million sachets from the streets in its more than two years of operation.

“What we collect now is minimal compared to what needs to be picked up,” Gold said. “We get many, many thousands of sachets a month. It’s a small, small dent in the problem.”

Indeed, there’s no shortage. Water sachets are available on every corner, and hawkers weave through traffic to deliver them to motorists. Accra officials estimate the sachets compose 85 percent of all waste generated by the city’s 3 million residents. Less than 5 percent is recycled.

Also popular are Fan Milk products, which include ice cream, frozen yogurt and citrus drinks. Fan Milk’s colorful packaging injects some flair into the Trashy Bags products.

In his second-floor showroom above the washing and sewing stations, Gold points to the bag he hopes will fuel a major expansion. It’s called the “Smart Bag,” a fold-up grocery bag sewn from the plastic of 50 sachets. It sells locally for about $12. He hopes to export them to the United States and distribute them through upscale chains like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

“That’s the link. We have to create that market. That would really make a big impact on the environment here, because if we could ship a million of those a year, say, then that means we get 50 million of the sachets off the streets every year,” he said.