Several vendors at this year’s Grand Central Station holiday market are offering goods discreetly fashioned from recycled materials, such as necklaces that were once piles of old magazines and smiling Christmas angels made from cans of bug spray.
Some holiday vendors, like handbag company Engage Green, make environmentalism their mission. Others market the crafts of African cooperatives from countries where discarded tires and beer bottles make sustainable raw materials. Spending an extra 10 minutes in Grand Central before catching the Metro North can involve shoppers in a complex network of recycling, trade and international development.
Leonor Mendoza’s brightly patterned handbags look like fabric trimmed with leather. But every yard of her cloth began as 18 plastic soda bottles. Materials that look like woven straw emerged from reams of discarded paper. Mendoza’s bright blue penguin-themed umbrellas hide biodegradable wood in their handles and their fabric comes from recycled plastic.
“It’s still the essence of the material,” said Mendoza, a Venezuelan sculptor who created sculptures from industrial scrap metal in her home country. “I see this as functional art, but people can wear it.”
Mendoza said her goal is to make people think about the long life of the materials she uses, although her polished designs disguise her products’ humble origins. She decided to transform plastic bottles because they are ubiquitous trash around the world, she said, even floating across oceans.
At another booth, Bamboula Ltd., crafts also have their origins an ocean away.
“In Africa, everything becomes something,” said saleswoman Barbara DiNoia. “There’s no waste there.”
The shop features a mix of baskets, holiday ornaments and jewelry made of discarded goods or sustainable plants. Marble-sized glass beads strung in bracelets were once beer bottles. A tiny nativity scene grew out of banana fiber.
“A lot of time it’s about using traditional skills in a modern way,” said Emily Edelstein of Bamboula.
Bamboula purchases goods from small cooperatives in Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, and Uganda where crafts are traditionally one-offs, each item slightly different. To sell recycled products to American consumers, she said, the goods have to be uniform, especially for large orders.
“It’s a very new concept to make 50 or 100 of the same basket that looks exactly the same,” said Edelstein. “In order to compete in the global market, they have to have that reliability of product.”
Bamboula was founded by a former Peace Corps volunteer who sought to maintain connections in East Africa.
For Anna Msowoya-Keys of Chibekeni Global Treasures, the link to her wares is more visceral. Msowoya-Keys, a former aid worker from Malawi, assisted refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Mozambique. She founded her fair trade shop in order to give back to her home country, which ironically garnered few development dollars because there had not been a major conflict.
Now her proceeds support a boarding school she is building for children in her home region.
“In 2003 I lost four sisters to HIV/AIDS in Malawi,” she said. The disease has ravaged her home village, which has about 5,000 families.
“Right now it’s really children more than adults,” she said.
The beads on her necklaces have been crushed and reformed, and her bangles come from cow horns discarded when the animals were slaughtered.
But Msowoya-Keys takes pride in the crafts she sources from women’s cooperatives in seven African countries, and has watched them fund the construction of her campus. She said she does not want her artisans to feel that people purchase their goods out of pity. She wants them to be proud.