Jellyfish Products: An Art Initiative of Social Enterprise Recyclers

Nélida Nassar   10.17.2017

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The plastic bags that are used daily in vast quantities across the world are a curse to our planet. While we as individuals can easily avoid them by bringing our own reusable shopping bags with us, the fact that millions of them are made each day, to be used only briefly and to then spend years afterward contaminating our shared resources, is enough to make even the staunchest tree-huggers throw their hands up in defeat.

In an effort to reduce unnecessary waste, some countries have placed bans on plastic bags. Lebanon is not among them. One of the continents most active in recycling plastic bags is Africa, where several countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda have created social enterprises to transform the bags into useful objects.

Plastic bags have become a big problem across Lebanon because of its lack of recycling initiatives and waste management infrastructure. Creative initiatives are urgently needed there. One of the first such intervention in the country comes from Jellyfish, which has developed a rather ingenious solution, even if modest in scale relative to the plastic bag epidemic: the bags become the feedstock for traditional, though disappearing arts and crafts such as hand knitting, weaving, and crochet. It makes recycled, eco-friendly products from plastic reused bags.

Jellyfish, now in its first year, is the brainchild of Laila Zahed, who was inspired by similar initiatives in plastic-yarn weaving in African countries, where the women followed their belief that design can solve stubborn problems. Zahed has always been concerned with environmental issues and had started the initiative “Ana Ma Bkkeb” (I do not litter). While she doesn’t own Jellyfish, she is its design director and also helps to promote its products, as well as being the initiative’s main benefactor. Currently, Jellyfish has a very small structure in the Bekaa Valley and employs 7 women five of them make the products and the two others are in sales and administration – a few are Lebanese and the others are Syrian refugees – all working from home.

Several of them have undergone a UNESCO-funded training program in starting a socially responsible enterprise, and this is how Zahed learned about them. Jeffyfish doesn’t receive any NGO or United Nations funding, nor does it have any investors so far. Because the women are scattered across the Bekaa Valley and have other domestic responsibilities, Jellyfish has been slow to become a self-sustaining concern. It also offers job opportunities for untrained workers, through referrals from charitable organizations. The women stitch and crochet the plastic trash in the form of one-of-a-kind objects, including fashionable and useful bags, coasters, accessories and other products. Their goods are displayed every weekend in the stalls of Souk el Tayeb or are sold through words of mouth.

Jellyfish starts with used plastic bags collected by friends, family, and the public, as well as from the refugee camps. They are first converted into long plastic strips, and then these strips, or ‘threads,’ are manually crocheted into a diverse objects that retains the original colors of the threads, which adds to the unique look of the upcycled material. The objects have proven to be durable, strong, washable and tolerant to rain and dust.

By turning what was once waste into valuable products, both colorful and useful, this process obviously reduces the negative impact of single-use plastic bags; but it can also spur further conversations about waste, plastic and reuse. Jellyfish, even in its modest beginnings, is designed to raise awareness of how we define waste and alert us to the possibilities of reusing what was once destined to become ‘trash’.

Such a simple initiative brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s words: “The earth makes a sound as of sighs. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition. The absurdity of those things, on the one hand, and the necessity of those others, on the other. You must say words, as long as there are any. Be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything.”