Turn bread tags into bags: Teaching KL's urban poor how to upcycle plastic waste

Making items like coasters from plastic waste is the way forward to protect Mother Earth. Photos: Hung Bee Ling

To many consumers, bread tags, single-use plastic bags, food wrappers and three-in-one coffee packets are nothing more than rubbish. But Hung Bee Ling – co-founder of social enterprise Hara Maker – knows there is value and potential in these items.

Hung, 36, works with the urban poor to convert plastic waste into upcycled products.

During the first movement control order, Hara Maker launched Reimagine Plastic (RP), an income-generating project for the economically disadvantaged in the Klang Valley.

The programme’s objective is to provide underprivileged communities with vocational skills in recycling and upcycling plastic waste.

“We started the project when some community members lost their income during the first MCO. We plan to conduct more workshops to create more job opportunities for the urban poor.

Bread tags can be upcycled and transformed into a planting pot.Bread tags can be upcycled and transformed into a planting pot.“So far, we have worked with refugee and B40 communities in Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur,” Hung said.

Hara Makers, founded by Hung and Chee Lee Yoon, was launched with the aim of helping to eradicate poverty among the urban poor.

In 2019, Hung recorded the life stories of some of the B40 communities and found that many in these communities earn their living by collecting trash.

“When I followed some of them to the rubbish sites, there was so much trash and the amount of plastic waste was staggering.

“Because of its low value in the recycling market, plastic waste will continue to keep piling up. I felt sad knowing we Malaysians have created this plastic mountain,” Hung shared.

And so, they decided to do something positive about it.

Inspiration and information

Hung goes on social media platforms like YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration and to learn new ways to upcycle plastic waste.

Hara Makers co-founder Hung works with the urban poor to create and sell upcycled products.Hara Makers co-founder Hung works with the urban poor to create and sell upcycled products.Plastic items are collected from a drop-off centre in Petaling Jaya. Once segregated, cleaned, dried and sanitised, the waste is cut into different sizes.

Then a mini compression machine is used to upcycle plastic waste like bread tags, instant noodle packets and plastic bags into flower pots, wall hooks, coasters, spinners and many other items.

About 40 instant noodles packets or 30 bread tags are needed to create a 50g flower pot.

“So far, we have produced nearly 1,800 items. To date we have about 20 workers (from marginalised communities) and they earn about 50% of our gross sales. Once they complete a product, we pay them immediately. And if they can propose a design idea that gets selected, they will receive additional commission,” explained Hung.

Non-profit organisations like Toy Libraries Malaysia and Play Unlimited have also commissioned Hara Makers to produce plastic storage bags using upcycled plastic.

“We focus more on plastic as it has very low recycling value and often end sup in our waterways and landfills. The community members who help in this production are also taught to differentiate the different types of plastic bags,” she said.

Hara Makers works with many communities to convert plastic waste into upcycled products.Hara Makers works with many communities to convert plastic waste into upcycled products.

With these efforts, Hung hopes to educate Malaysians on the importance of the 3Rs: Reuse, Reduce and Recycle.

“We do not want to live in a world surrounded by trash. We started the project to educating ourselves and our community. Climate change is happening because of human activities.

"We need to be more responsible because we share the planet with many other creatures. We should opt for a more responsible, sustainable and environmentally friendly consumption,” said Hung.

Upcycling plastic is vital to minimise the volume of discarded materials and waste being sent to the landfills.Upcycling plastic is vital to minimise the volume of discarded materials and waste being sent to the landfills.

She hopes to create more household items from upcycled plastic, and encourage more people and corporations to shift to recycled plastic items.

Besides RP, Hara Makers also conducts the WASU (We Are Still Useful) community project to upcycle coffee grounds and fruit waste.

They also organise river clean-ups, upcycling workshops at Rumah Tangsi, and training programmes for the B40 communities in Lembah Subang.

They also have the Buyback Programme, where Hara Makers purchase plastic from the homeless population at a price higher than the market rate.

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