Solving Plastic Bag Waste Overseas: Up-fuse

Rania and Yara are the dynamic duo from Egypt that founded Up-fuse, a social enterprise dedicated to transforming plastic bag waste into durable, up-cycled tote bags, laptop cases, and accessories. I met these two women when we were co-fellows at the DO School’s social entrepreneurship program back in 2015 — it so happened that Rania, Yara and I all had the same passion for solving issues regarding waste generation, but they were already in the works of designing products for Up-fuse. I’ve been able to see their journey for the past two years and am so excited to share their story as I’ve personally witnessed their growth and development. These two ladies are more than environmental pioneers in the country of Egypt, but are also revolutionary female social entrepreneurs. They go above and beyond the extent of plastic bag waste but also consciously design and partner with local NGOs and artisans to create their products.

I had a mini-reunion with Rania a month back when she had visited San Francisco, and it was great to catch up and hear more about her journey since we last saw each other in 2015. We went through a few questions below on the plastic-free movement, her experience growing Up-fuse with Rania, and more. Stay tuned for another post on Up-fuse’s blog featuring some Q&A on zero waste living!

Q: Please tell us a bit about your background, and how Up-fuse got started.

R: Up-fuse started as a project in 2013, by my partner, Yara, and myself, back when we were students during an exchange program in Berlin. Both of us studied product design, and as designers, you always think about how products were made as well as their life cycle. Knowing the issue of plastic bag waste, and being inspired from traveling, we decided to design bags that fit our lifestyle, were durable, and looked good at the same time. So in 2015, we decided to quit our jobs, and turn Up-fuse from an on-the-side project to our full time business. Since then, we’ve upcycled more than 40,000 plastic bags, and sold more than 2,000 products.

Q: Why did you decide to work on the issue of plastic bag waste?

R: The first time I visited Germany, I noticed that single-use plastic bags were banned and consumers needed to buy them instead of getting them for free. Looking back at my home country, Egypt, there were no regulations against the use of plastic bags, and so our waste generation was far higher compared to that of Germany’s. I researched this issue a bit more, and realized that plastic bags are the most difficult to recycle in Egypt due to complications from collection and separation. Although they’re only used for minutes, they take from 500 to 1000 years to decompose.

Q. What are some of the most critical environmental issues facing Cairo today, and what is Up-fuse’s vision to combat that?

R: Sadly there are so many environmental issues, but the most striking, in my opinion, is the waste management system in Cairo. The city is an over populated area inhabiting 12 million citizens, with a very poor waste management infrastructure (most of it is informally managed by the Zabaleen community of Manshiat Naser). There is a rise of air pollution from not only traffic emissions, but also landfills and trash which is littered on the streets. Trash on the streets is so visible that people actually get used to it as if its the norm, leaving them to behave even more carelessly, thinking “It’s not clean anyway, so it’s not my problem.”

At Up-fuse, we look to support local Aabaleen communities in Manshiat Naser and are also starting to take the initiative to teach our consumers. We believe that regardless of how corrupted governments and legal systems can be in certain areas, we should always start with ourselves as consumers — we can reduce, reuse, and recycle, consume less plastic bags, and simply be more conscious of our actions to help be agents of change.

Q: What are your thoughts of the ‘plastic-free’ lifestyle that many are embarking, and how do you think Up-fuse can help with that movement, especially in light that you are upcycling plastic that many consumers may not want to associate with?

R: I completely understand that there is no one solution that fits everything and everyone, as sustainability varies from one consumer to the other depending on their country, social background, and income level.

Sustainability in Egypt for instance, is to reuse waste already being generated as to prolong its lifecycle. If waste can have a practical, functional application, and also be used as a learning tool to help drive awareness about conscious consumption, then we see it more as a sustainable benefit.

The importance of using discarded materials as we’re running out of natural resources, plastic or not, is growing. There are many positive characteristics of plastic as a material such as protection, barrier properties and durability which have brought our society to where it is thus far, it’s just a matter of how we use and manage it that will be vital for us to continue to better understand.

Q: Could you share with us one of your most fond memories due to your work with Up-fuse?

R: I have had so many! Starting Up-fuse had plenty of challenges as well as successes — from all-nighters of working hard to memories made from closing deals with critical partners that really gave us an exposure with our company.

Most recently, we won 1st place at the WeMENA Champion Awards, something we always dreamed of but didn’t expect, and received grant that will really push us to the next level to really make Up-fuse grow. 

Q: How do you think you’ve changed since you started Up-fuse? Do you find that you have become empowered to change your own lifestyle because of it?

R: Both Yara and I have changed on a personal level, as well as on a business level. In two years we were able to grow to having our own in-house workshop with 3 full-time sewers and 4 in the core team, and supported 9 students with 15 housewives to continue their education and earn income. This all began with a seed investment of only 5,000 USD (at that time, which is now 2,700 USD due to currency devaluation).

On a personal level, my journey with Up-fuse made me more conscious about everything I use in my daily life: I became less consumeristic, more appreciative of the everyday moments, and valued experiences and relationships over materialistic things. So many things that used to bother me now seem as very small, and all the social pressures of earning more money and things mean nothing to me anymore. My definition of success is now different, and I look more towards how I can be a citizen and engage with my local society, bettering the status quo with Up-fuse.

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