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The power of up-cycling trash plastic has got this brand to repurpose over 1,500 plastic bags. On its mission to achieve sustainability, Théla has partnered up with a range of businesses that have become the brand’ collecting points while giving it a reason to raise awareness. Fairtrade, ethically made working alongside organisations in India, Théla is stimulating a circular economy by reducing waste of landfill and providing employment to waste collectors, home-based workers, senior citizens, weavers and prisoners. The products are beautifully imperfect enhancing uniqueness as each piece truly one of a kind!
Théla home decor, jewelry and fashion accessories are made using handcrafting techniques such as crochet and weaving. The founder of this colorful brand explains the entire process including all the manual steps of converting plastic bags into “plarn”. Meet Diti, she is an eco-social entrepreneur determined to get more people involved to educate the world about the plastic impact and beautiful alternatives. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did!
Hi Diti, what is your background and what is the story behind you starting the brand Théla?
Hello Everyone! I am an independent graphic designer from Mumbai and I live in Athens, Greece. When I moved here I started a plastic upcycling initiative where I crochet products with used and discarded plastic bags. I called my brand ‘Théla’ which colloquially means ‘plastic bags’ in Hindi.
Through this initiative I am able to combine my love for design, making things with my hands and living consciously and as sustainably as possible. Earlier, however, I had no idea about ‘sustainability or the impact of plastic waste on the environment. But when I witnessed the steady increase in consumerism in India it gradually changed my perspective.
One particular incident that always comes to mind is that while living in Mumbai, I used to play a team sport called Ultimate Frisbee on the beach. Once when we got to the beach to play we found it completely covered with waste. We could not even see the sand! It was just before the monsoons and the tide had brought in all the rubbish back onto the shore. Of course, it was not the first time that we saw garbage but this was terrible. At first, we complained and blamed others. And then after some time, I thought – wait a minute, why is there so much rubbish in the first place? And where does it come from?
The answer is simple. It is me. It is us, it is people like you and me who use single-use, disposable plastic to begin with like plastic bags, straws, water bottles, coffee cups and so much more. We are a part of this consumerism. We are the ones responsible.
And so about 2 years ago when I found myself in Greece and realized that there is an overall lack of awareness about sustainability and the harmful effects of plastic, it felt like the right time to do something. I started Théla not only to reduce the number of single-use plastics that end up in our landfills and oceans but to also to educate people about its impact and alternatives.
Théla is a brand with a strong mission to reduce plastic waste, why did you choose to launch products that are upcycled instead of using new materials?
At Théla we upcycle plastic waste instead of using new materials because plastic is the most harmful material to dispose of into the environment, it is a material the earth simply cannot digest.
Single-use plastics (like plastic bags, water bottles, straws, and coffee cups) take a lot of energy and resources to manufacture and are used for only a few minutes before they are discarded. They go in landfills where, depending on the type of plastic they take 10 to 1,000 years to decompose, and before that they break down into tiny, toxic particles that contaminate our soil, plants, and the food we eat. They also enter oceans where millions of birds, fish, and marine animals die each year after getting entangled in it or mistaking it for food and eating it.
We also upcycle plastic because it is a less intrusive process than recycling. Less than 10% of plastic is actually recycled and the process of recycling consumes a lot of energy. And unlike in the case of other waste materials like metal and glass, there is a limit to the number of times plastic can be recycled.
Why is there so much excess of waste on the streets in India and what are the environmental consequences of this litter?
Although India is one of the least polluting countries, most rural and urban areas in the country do not have a proper waste disposal system and so most waste is dumped on street corners, river banks and public spaces. This waste is inadvertently consumed by cattle and a lot of times it is burned, releasing toxic fumes. Exposed garbage is one of the primary causes of disease and long term health issues amongst humans as well.
What kind of upcycled, handcrafted and colourful accessories do you have in Théla’s range?
The products at Théla consist of home décor pieces like coasters, centerpieces and hanging ornaments, jewelry such as brooches, earrings, and neckpieces, and functional fashion accessories like pouches, purses and wallets.
What kind of plastic do you use, what is the upcycling process and which are the handmade craft techniques that you use to make the products?
At the moment we work with plastic bags alone that have previously been used and discarded. We use two craft techniques – crochet and weaving and the process is basically to convert the plastic bags into yarn (commonly known as ‘plarn’) before it is crocheted or woven.
The crocheted products are made entirely by me here, in Athens. I first collect the plastic bags from garbage bins, laïkis (local fruit and vegetable markets), streets and from various collection points. By collection points, I mean shops, yoga studios and workspaces that are willing to keep 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 organizations in India. The durable woven textiles are made entirely with discarded plastic bags by a cultural craft centre, Khamir in Kutch, Gujarat. The collecting, cleaning and cutting process is similar to how I do it for the crocheted products, only it’s on a much larger scale – Khamir collects approximately 100 kilos of plastic bags a month from Bhangaar Wadas (government waste collection points). They are then 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.
We assume each product at your shop is unique due to the nature of the sourcing materials. In what way are they unique?
The plastic bags are cut and either crocheted or woven by hand and because of this, there may be certain imperfections in their symmetry and appearance. Even colors keep varying between two pieces of the same product because we rely on discarded plastic bags that are available to us. These factors are what enhances its uniqueness and make each piece truly one of a kind!
So there are many steps in the process to create the products! Who are all the people involved in the process and how do you help them?
To make the plastic woven textile, Khamir provides employment to waste collectors, home-based workers, senior citizens and medium-skilled weavers who are all involved at different stages of the process. The organization has recently trained prison inmates to weave the plastic, providing them with employment as well. Their plastic upcycling initiative educates the community about plastic waste and is also instrumental in reviving traditional weaving skills intrinsic to Kutch.
The Self Help Centre in Mumbai is fair trade certified. They provide economic independence to underprivileged people through guidance, skill training and infrastructure and provide an online and offline channel to retail the products they make.
In the future, as I grow, I would like to work with people in Athens for the crocheted products – aunties who crochet as a hobby and could use the extra income and refugees whom I could teach the craft to.
And what about the social and environmental impact you are creating with Théla, do you have any data worth sharing?
Each product purchased from our brand saves anything between 2 to 60 plastic bags from harming the environment. Since we started, we have sold products made with a total of approximately 1500 plastic bags that would have otherwise been dumped in landfills and oceans.
On a social level, all our production is fair trade, providing employment to low-income craft communities, senior citizens, underprivileged people and prison inmates.
What have been your challenges as an eco-entrepreneur launching this brand of upcycled plastic accessories?
Starting a small business from scratch is always a challenge. Here, in Greece, it is even more challenging and expensive because of the high taxations, VAT and social insurance contributions. Recent estimates say that these add up to over 70% of one’s total gross income. The state does not provide any benefits or concessions for starting a sustainable business unlike in some other countries.
Another challenge is product pricing. The process of making the products, from collecting the plastic bags to washing, cutting and crocheting are complex and time-consuming. This, combined with the existence of so many other cheaper products in the market makes it challenging to sell at a competitive price.
One of the key distinctions most social entrepreneurs have in common is that they tend to collaborate. How do you perceive collaboration and how has it helped your business?
Collaborating with like-minded organizations who share the same compassion for sustainability has not only helped the brand grow, it has also reinforced our belief in what we do and why we are doing it.
The month of April is massive for fashion brands as for the Fashion Revolution event. What does such an initiative mean for a brand like yours?
In Greece, the Fashion Revolution community is still very new and so it has given Théla the opportunity to help it grow since its inception. We help organize and participate in all Fashion Revolution events, talk and spread awareness about the effects of plastic and conduct workshops on plastic upcycling. It is great to be so involved with the community and has connected Théla to many other influencers.
You are based in Greece and conduct business operations in India. How does a social entrepreneurial venture look like in both countries?
Consumerism is growing in India but has hit the country a lot more recently. As a child, I never grew up with disposable products like toilet paper or diapers or kitchen rolls, to name a few. People still live frugally and are a lot more conscious about sustainability and mindful living. Coming to Greece and witnessing the consumerist lifestyle was a shock and I took the lack of awareness as a challenge to start an upcycling initiative and a reason to raise awareness.
I feel I am making the most of the advantages I have in both places. Living in a country with so much consumerism is a great opportunity to create change and working with ethical, fair trade organisations in India is financially viable only because I can retail the products at fair value in more economically developed countries here in Europe.
And what has been the greatest success of the brand so far?
Putting into practice what I have grown up believing in is the biggest success for me. Never did I feel I could run a sustainable business and now here I am, in a new country, running an upcycling initiative! It is still very small, it is just me with a lot of help from a lot of friends, and I am in love with it.
Is there any advice you would like to give to other small businesses trying to make a difference?
Keep at it and don’t give up! Intention and talent and intelligence are all very good, but they mean very little without perseverance.
If you could write a message on a big wall that the entire world could read, what would it say?
Be nice. To yourself, to others, to the environment.
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