28 Jun 2017
Kiryat Tivon, Israel
Resource efficiency and sustainable waste management, Sustainable Textiles & Clothing

Huge billboard advertisements are ubiquitous around the world. They are mounted on the side of buildings and over traffic roadways — and once their short life is through, they disappear from sight, only to end up in a landfill.

Gil Castel watched this happen for years in his role as CEO of Castel & Shmul, a billboard media company in Haifa, Israel. “You get ill just looking at these mountains of PVC (polyvinyl chloride),” says Castel, referring to the synthetic plastic material used to create the advertisements. A SwitchMed partner organization course was what eventually turned Castel onto the idea of upcycling the old advertisements into something more.

In early 2016, Castel decided to start a side business and called it Ekobag. It upcycles old PVC ad banners into fashionable handbags for adults and children.

The PVC problem:

Castel’s media company produces as many as 50 ads and billboards each month, with the potential for thousands of square meters of PVC to end up as landfill waste. That in itself adds to the tens of thousands of tons contributed by other advertising companies — in Israel alone. An estimated 33 million tons of PVC is produced annually worldwide.

Response to PVC disposal varies internationally. Cities in Spain have been declared PVC-free, and entire European countries have banned the disposal of plastics in landfills, where it can leach into groundwater supplies and oceans.

While not great for the environment, PVC ads are actually an ideal material for making handbags. “PVC is flexible, waterproof, and shiny,” Castel remarks. “It is excellent for someone who needs a durable material. You can wash it, take it to the beach, and use it for baby bags.”

Once an advertising campaign is complete, Castel’s media company is responsible for removing and disposing of the banner. While companies are supposed to pay an amount to dispose of the harmful PVC material, Castel says payment methods are not formalized enough to be effective. As a result, you end up with a cycle that is negative for the environment. “The advertising company just wants to see their billboard and does not care where the material is going. So the installation group takes it down and finds the nearest garbage can,” Castel remarks.

Ekobag turns trash trendy:

To create its products, Ekobag works with Taika Zimmermann, an artist living in Israel. Zimmermann is a freelance stitcher, and previously worked for a decade with an Italian tailor in London. She and Castel were introduced through mutual friends and his business idea immediately matched with Zimmermann’s ability and desire to produce creative, upcycled products.

Zimmermann’s eye for design is immediately visible in the bags. “The first thing I notice is the colors and patterns. I love anything with flowers or nature on it,” Zimmermann says, referencing the WhatsApp photos Castel will send her of a billboard ad nearing the end of its campaign lifespan. “I worked for so many years with different materials. In a way, this is an easier material to handle because it does not move like silk or something more delicate.”

Once Zimmermann has selected her part of the advertisement, she starts designing. Its durability is what makes PVC ideal for designs requiring a bit more strength. One of the latest Ekobag designs is a diaper bag for mothers, complete with all the bottle holders, rings, and zips required to make the bag highly functional. Zimmermann just finished the model for a diaper changing mat and envisions making travel kit bags in the future. Ekobag also makes various sized handbags and laptop cases.

Sewing supports a social cause:

Once Zimmermann has cut her canvas into a pattern of pieces, the bags are ready to be sewn. To save on sewing costs and contribute to a social project, Castel approached Native Rehabilitation Center in Hadera, Israel. The center works with psychiatric patients, many of whom have schizophrenia. “The amount we get paid by Ekobag is paid to our patients. It helps them because the money from social security is not very high,” says Daniel Szal, a clinical social worker, and manager of the center. According to Szal, 10 patients have been hired to work on the Ekobag project.

Having bags sewn at the center means Ekobag is able to save money and not have to rely on cheaper sewing services in other parts of the world. Those savings are then passed down to customers.

Bringing the Ekobag movement to Israel:

Ekobag’s operations are still evolving. Castel says the next step is to increase sales to both private customers and larger clients. He has run a few successful Facebook ad campaigns, which has garnered dozens of ‘likes’ and a few sales for the product. Customers from around the world can currently buy products via Ekobag’s online shop, and purchases have been sent as far as Austria and Canada. Still, Castel admits sales are in their early stage.

“There is a big supply of PVC, but our output is very small. We need the end of sale to be much stronger,” says Castel. Ekobag’s upcycled products currently use just 5% of the total PVC Castel has available through his company.

 

Castel has an innovative idea to engage larger clients: involve the companies whose ads are being transformed into bags. He recently approached a major furniture company to see if they would like to sell or display the bags made with their ads in-store, and has thought about doing the same with the banks and universities that appear on his advertisements. “It could be a social project where a business that does a campaign with us can prepare a bag,” Castel explains. “That same company could then promote their bags as part of their social responsibility mandate.”

 

One of the challenges of upcycling in Israel is that the environmental value is not as understood or recognized as it is in other parts of the world. As Zimmerman notes, people still like to buy things that are new, not just newly created. “Through my art and craft, I hope to inspire and raise more awareness about our environment. I want to give a new perspective, whether consumers buy more consciously, or decide to make their own,” Zimmerman says.

 

Until sales increase, the Ekobag team is happy to be doing their small part to reduce the amount of PVC waste that ends up in landfills. With Zimmermann’s fashion-forward designs and Castel’s green mission, they are hoping customers will do their part, too.

 

Facebook (Ekobag): https://www.facebook.com/Ekobagdesign/

Facebook (TAIKA Designs): https://www.facebook.com/taikadesigns/

Etsy (online shop): https://www.etsy.com/shop/EkoBag

Photos: Courtesy of Ekobag

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
Upcycling design turns old billboards into fashionable bags | The Switchers
Ekobag Sustainable textile and clothing
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