Turn This Article Into a Bag

The reuse movement is gaining ground as a commercial force, with handbags made of candy wrappers and cutting boards made of soda bottles now being sold

Before you throw out that egg carton or snack wrap, think again. Perhaps you could reuse it, sparing the nation a few more grams to the 6 million tons of garbage Israeli households and industry create each year?

Reusing isn't the same as recycling, which is the industrial processing of garbage into raw materials. Reusing, which is also called upcycling, is making use of waste, whether the same use or repurposing it for another.

"Recycling is an industrial process that sometimes consumes energy and sometimes emits toxins. It is less environmentally friendly than reusing," says Lili Butman of Green Change.

For instance, recycling paper requires electricity, water and bleach. Reusing paper to make a lamp shade isn't an industrial process.

Next week Israel will be holding its first conference on reusing as a business venture. The conference, sponsored by the Environmental Protection Ministry, will be held in Pardes Hanna-Karkour.

Reusing is an offshoot of ethical consumerism, explains Butman: It is the preference of products whose production does not cause harm to man or the environment, or causes lesser harm.

"We are starting to see more people looking for the story behind the product, investigating what it's made of, not only asking whether it's pretty or not. Consumers are starting to realize that our lives are generating waste that needs to be put somewhere, and it's better to buy a product that's made of used materials than of new ones."

While the reusing movement depends on consumers being willing to buy its output, it also depends on manufacturers joining up, she says. That is the purpose of the conference.

"We want product designers to meet up, who know how to take materials and give them the potential to become something different," she says.

A growing niche

Reusing is still a new concept, and not only in Israel. But there is movement. The American firm TerraCycle has a product line with more than 240 offerings, from files to handbags made of discarded food packaging. It collects food packaging from consumers and sells in some of America's biggest chains, including Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot. Another company, Ecoist, turns food and beverage packaging into woven bags made in Peru and sold in the United States, Europe and Japan.

In Israel, reusing isn't on the map yet. A handful of designers do it as a novelty, but this isn't a mass production activity, hence any products you find will be unique.

You can however find products made from reusing at homewares chain Beitili. Rachela Glazer, Beitili's head of procurement, says reuse products are starting to make inroads, but it's still a small niche. Moreover, buyers aren't necessarily green-minded, she says: They like the design.

"The green community cares about this, it's in their soul. But what matters more is the design issue, clients who understand that behind a table or picture frame is a whole other life story. These are stories that excite the imagination," Glazer says.

However, she says the chain is still leery of the risk of "drastically expanding" its venture into reusing.

Nobody buys 'ecology'

Yakov Ender imports the Italian brand Momaboma, maker of handbags from reused materials.

"It is true that the ecological issue is important. But the clients won't buy the product because of ecological slogans. The designer has to add value to the product that differentiates it from other products," he spells out.

How? It has to be visually different.

"We are asking the client to consume intelligently, and are also giving the client a unique, different product. That's the winning formula," Ender says.

Mirona Koren, who imports Madeo recycled products, says Israelis want pretty first and foremost: The story behind the item is an extra.

"It's different in the U.S.," she feels. "Awareness of reusing is higher there and clients will look for it."

While some may think that because the raw materials of reused products are waste, production is cheaper and prices for the consumer should be too, Beitili's Glazer says it isn't so.

"When nobody needs a material, they throw it out and the price is minimal," says Glazer. "But the moment a need for the material arises, people realize there's potential and automatically, the price rises. From that moment on, it isn't waste material any more and it's traded like any other raw material."

And making the product is harder. Machines to make furniture have been around for decades: reusing waste is a manual process, and that's expensive.

Turning a rubber tire into handbags requires a lot of work and resources, points out Koren. That's also why not many people get into that line of work. So if you see a kicky handbag you like made of pre-used rubber or newspapers, don't automatically assume it will be cheap.