Hidden deep among the coastal rice paddies in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, a small company is making a big difference in the war on waste. Rice & Carry is a social enterprise that seeks to improve the lives of local women, while providing an alternative outlet for waste that would otherwise end up in landfill. Making anything from purses to laptop cases to surf wax combs, this company uses a whole range of unusual materials and new technologies to transform trash into unique, practical products that are ideal for travellers.
Rice & Carry was created back in 2012 by a young and innovative couple. Henry (German) and Susan (Austrian) had been working and living in Arugam Bay for about a year when they decided to start something new and unique that helps tackle the increasing problem of plastic waste. Since it began, the business has grown considerably and is now operating as a fully functional social enterprise, employing 15 women and 3 men. I was lucky enough to meet Henry and Susan as well as the brilliant team behind the products while visiting their home and production studio just north of Arugam Bay.
I was picked up in the company tuk-tuk and whisked along through lush winding fields of green. At the wheel is Essai, a friend and employee who has been with Rice & Carry since the business began back in 2012. Essai loves a chat and tells me all about his hometown, how it has changed over the years and of course, all about Rice & Carry.
When we eventually pull up at the studio I feel a little lost geographically but comforted to see a building buzzing with activity. The production property, almost hidden among the palms, is modest and unassuming but boasts comfortable space for six women and their sewing machines, as well as two storage rooms and a kitchen. The team also have two shipping containers on site that separately store the washed and unwashed materials.
The materials used at Rice & Carry range from large polypropylene rice bags to spice sacks, rope, zips, and more recently single-use plastic bags. The larger bags, often previously used for turmeric root, rice or spices, usually come printed with rustic designs. They legally cannot be reused for food products and so are eagerly snapped up in the thousands by the Rice & Carry team.
With the steady increase in tourism, as well as the importation of plastic bottles, product wrapping and the excessive use of single-use plastic bags, rubbish is becoming a real issue for both the country and the wildlife that inhabit it. In many parts of Sri Lanka, individuals and local authorities do not have proper facilities to dispose of garbage, let alone recycling, so plastic waste is commonly dumped or burnt in back gardens or on the sides of roads.
The concern over increasing waste in Sri Lanka was brought to international attention in April 2017, when the Meethotamulla garbage dump site, just outside Colombo, collapsed, claiming the lives of 32 people, injuring many more and destroying over 100 homes. The site is responsible for garbage from the entire Colombo district and had been protested against by locals since it opened.
Needing to respond, in September 2017 the Sri Lankan government imposed a national ban on the use of polythene bags, “effective immediately.” Also rumoured to come under the ban was the production or importation of plastic containers, plates, cups and spoons made of polystyrene. Any offenders are said to be subject to a fine of 10,000 rupees (50 pounds) and/or a jail sentence of no more than two years.
Anecdotally however, the effects of this ban are not yet evident. The default option at grocery stores and retail outlets is still polythene bags, and it is not uncommon to order a local meal and have it brought to you in a bowl lined with a thin, white sheet of plastic.
It seems we have a long way to go until we have practical, cost-effective and sustainable packaging solutions that are widely available and commonly used. In the meantime, it is comforting to know that companies like Rice & Carry are raising awareness and using their expertise to rescue materials before they are thrown into landfill. Their products serve as more than just a souvenir, but as a reminder of our fragile climate and the need to incorporate sustainability into the very fabric of our lives.
Henry and Susan – true to reputation – are open, warm and intelligent people with a good sense of humour. They are also respectably private, which is why you won’t find a photo of them in this story, for them the ladies are the stars of the show. The couple introduce me to the team, tell me about their story, the vision of the enterprise and how it all came to light.
One thing I found really interesting about their story was the origin of the sewing machines and how they became such a common household item. Throughout my time in Sri Lanka I have heard a number of heart-warming stories about the aid provided after the devastating 2004 tsunami. As expected, huge numbers of practical items like materials required for construction and sanitation were donated, but I was surprised to hear that large numbers of sewing machines found their way to the island as well. It was explained that with the aid money or donations men were provided with fishing boats and women were given sewing machines, old or new, and – while the feminist in me initially found this hard to swallow – the initiative was crucial to the rebuilding of the many lives affected by the tsunami.
The Sewing Machine Project, founded in March 2005 by Margaret Jankowski, provided sewing machines, tools, and education to affected people. To many women, losing something as simple as a sewing machine meant losing their means of making an income, and for young women today (often married and home-bound), learning to sew has brought new opportunities to the horizon. Today, the initiative works on a local, national and international level, offering machines and creative opportunities for those in need.
This knowledge and expertise has provided the women at Rice and Carry with independence and an opportunity to earn a fair wage and pension. On the day of my visit there were six efficient, hard working and cheerful women buzzing away behind their sewing machines, two of whom were new to the job. The team is expanding at a fast rate; a result of many more orders to fill for 2018 and the exciting news of three pregnancies!
In addition to their team at the studio they also have a number of women who work from home. For instance Samsat, the eldest daughter of Essai (my tuk-tuk pal), was one of the first employees at Rice & Carry. The 24 year old mother-of-three is able to take fabrics from the studio to work on in her own home, in her own time.
After visiting the production studio I was taken down the road to Henry and Susan’s humble home, set on a large expansive block covered in white sand and dotted with palm trees, chickens, birds and two very friendly dogs. In the afternoon light it looked like something out of a magazine. The house itself is busy with life and open to the outdoors. In the garden there is a single hammock (which they claim to have only used once!) and a small, newly built studio where two more women are adding the finishing touches to some drawstring bags.
This new studio seemed to mostly be used for Rice & Carry’s latest projects, which involve the melting of plastic to create interesting products. One of the machines they use – which looks to me like a glorified toasty maker – melts down thin plastic bags to create colourful, durable sheets that can be cut and transformed into wallets, passport cases and bags.
Rice & Carry have also been working closely with their pals at the Colombo Design Studio to create some new (non-bag-related) products. Their most recent is the wax comb, targeted at the increasing number of surfers who come to the Sri Lanka every year. The machine that makes this possible has a small mouth that eats up and melts down plastic rice-bag scraps, before pouring the liquid into steel moulds.
Also in the pipeline are sunglasses made out of recycled plastic and even lightweight drawstring bags for supermarket shopping (a must for the sustainable packer!) To accompany their waste-busting merchandise, they also label their products with recycled card and attach them using the string made from coconut husks.
If you look closely enough in their production studio, hidden on the shelves among the jars and tubs is an innovation award. As their work becomes more widely known and appreciated, I’m sure there will be many more of these lining the shelves in the years to come.