Pittsburgh Company Recycles Bottles and Brings Jobs to Haiti

  • Jenna Knapp pulls thread from a spool. The mint green thread is made from recycled plastic bottles from Haiti. Green plastic bottles create green fibers that can only be dyed darker colors. Clear plastic bottles creates thread that can be dyed any color. Photo: Ashley Murray

  • Plastic bottles at one of the collection centers with which Thread partners in Haiti. Photo: Jesse Colaizzi courtesy of Thread

  • Wax canvas bags hang in the manufacturing space of the Pittsburgh-based company Moop. Moop will purchase fabric supplies from Thread. Wendy Downs, owner of Moop, said she’s interested in the source of her supplies. Photo: Ashley Murray

February 21, 2014

When a local photographer saw garbage in Haiti piled up in streets and thrown into canals untouched by a stretched public works system, he was moved to do more than take photos. Ian Rosenberger jotted in his journal that it would be good to turn Haiti’s trash into money. And then he created a social enterprise company called Thread to turn plastic bottles into sewing thread, and to offer Haitians work in a country where the unemployment rate is 40 percent.

“For us, the value comes at both ends, and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t have a business, it’d be a charity. And, we think that business is the responsible way to end poverty,” Rosenberger says. Thread, headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pa., partners with a network of plastic collection centers in Haiti called Ramase Lajan. All centers are Haitian owned and operated but are managed by a nonprofit.

Then, Haiti Recycling washes and shreds the plastic bottles until they turn into what is called plastic flake. From there, Thread exports the plastic flake to the U.S., where it is turned into thread and woven into a smooth polyester-type fabric.

“What you do is you take bottles and you send them through a series of machinery, and it recycles it into flake. It’s basically ground up confetti,” says Jenna Knapp, director of strategy for Thread. Knapp ran her hands through a big bag of shredded plastic flake. PET, a common form of plastic, is the main type of plastic used by Thread.

One of the plastic collection centers in Haiti that Thread partners with is collecting as much as 60,000 pounds of plastic each month. To give some perspective, about nine bottles makes one T-shirt. Thread has collected 70 million bottles. Rosenberg says that saves natural resources.

“The cool thing about recycled materials among many many other things is that it actually uses a lot less energy to make than virgin materials,” Rosenberger says. “When you’re buying polyester, that’s virgin polyester, it’s coming from a barrel of oil.”

Thread could not provide the exact amount a Haitian can make from collecting bottles because they said the price fluctuates according to the market and other influences. The company says about 1,600 Haitians have made some form of money last year, either full-time or supplemental income.

Rosenberger said the demand for his company’s fabric is born from consumers wanting to buy responsibly made products.

“What we’re trying to do is offer companies a way to do that much quicker by saying ‘Look, just take the supply chain that you were using and replace it with Thread’s,’” Rosenberger says. “It’s going to make your goods and your brand more valuable.”

Thread’s fabric is intended for wholesale, and Rosenberger says national and local companies are trying out the fabric.

Wendy Downs, owner of Pittsburgh-based bag manufacturing company Moop, says she’ll be transitioning to Thread’s fabric in a few weeks. Her company sells to customers around the world. She’s interested in the source of her fabrics and said the bottom line isn’t necessarily her motivation.

“Plastic is so exciting because it is this thing that will not go away, and there is so much of it. So, if we can repurpose it into something else, that’s really exciting to us,” Downs says.

Thread’s goal is to turn one billion pounds of trash into useful products by 2032. Rosenberger said the company may look to other types of garbage in the future.

“If you can pick that much trash up in communities that were previously dirty and didn’t have any jobs, you can actually move the needle on poverty. And then what if in the future you were picking up other waste streams?,” Rosenberger said. “You know, what if organics, compostables, cardboard… If you could put values on those things, the innovation and the products that could come from that are endless.”