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LA TIMES: OFF THE TRASH HEAP Items once headed to the landfill are being turned into must-have purses, bags and jewelry. Call it 'upcycling.' November 18, 2012|By Janet Kinosian

November 18, 2012

Upcycled fashion is no longer just for hard-core environmentalists. The idea of wearing items made from cast-off skateboards, inner tubes, plastic trash bags, car seat belts — even wartime bombs and bullets — is no longer considered bizarre but beautiful, as consumers pick up today's conservationist zeitgeist.

"Upcycling" means taking something disposable and creating something of higher value with it — making a purse from a tire, for instance. (Recycling, on the other hand, decomposes items into materials that can then be used to create something else, such as turning wood chips into paper.)


The rebooting of an item with a history and unique story that might otherwise end up in a landfill is what attracts many consumers to upcycled goods. And, as often happens as trends mature, upcycled fashion pieces have transformed from kitschy and sometimes embarrassing to quite ingenious, well-crafted and even high-end luxury clothes and accessories.

TOSHEKA DESIGNS: The ubiquitous plastic shopping bag recently banned in Los Angeles and several other Southern California cities is not just a menace here but also the world over. So Philadelphia-based entrepreneurs Lucy Lau Bigham and husband Herman Bigham conceived of a way to transform the trash into handbags.


For seven years the Bighams have worked with communities in Lucy's native Kenya developing green textiles and products. When they approached a major Kenyan supermarket chain called Nakumatt and proposed collecting clean used bags from the market's clients, creating the handbags with their community groups and then circling them back to the retailer to sell, "they thought this was a brilliant idea," Herman Bigham says.

Today, more than 130 women in 15 underserved Kenyan communities crochet the colorful bags using techniques passed down from their ancestors. The finished bags sell in 15 supermarkets throughout Kenya, and the company is gearing up to enter tourist hotel boutiques and the U.S. market.

"What do people do with the many plastic bags they come home with from the supermarket? If they bring them back clean to the supermarkets, we can make a product that will probably outlive them.... We see this as a great intervention in making sure these plastics don't get into the environment," Herman Bigham says. "Most of our customers simply can't believe [the purses] are made out of plastic trash bags." This is a modified version of the article.

Prices range from $60 to $250.


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