Mallory Erickson coordinates the Nica HOPE jewelry project in Managua, Nicaragua.
Chapas de Hojita- Little Leaf Earrings
Made from plastic water bottles and aluminum cans
The $48 Water Bottle
More than 300 people live inside of La Chureca, the municipal trash dump of Managua, Nicaragua, and many more enter each day to work. A typical woman will spend an entire day exposed to intense sun, smoke, medical waste, and contaminated water, searching for recyclable material amongst the garbage. Plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and paper are collected in sacks and at the end of the day the women will sell those materials earning just $1-2. It is an incredibly unhealthy and dangerous job, but the people of the dump have few other alternatives for employment.
In this community, recyclables are currency and nothing goes to waste. Copper is the most valuable material, and cables are often stolen and stripped down to pull out the valuable threads inside.
After copper comes aluminum, making an empty can of soda desireable. I often carry around bags of cans that I have collected at restaurants or gatherings, to use in the jewelry workshop. People on the street, students, and even coworkers have asked me for the cans when they hear me clanking around. Their objective is to resell them and earn a few cordoba, but by saving them and taking them to our workshop, I know they will be used in a much more valuable way.
After aluminum come plastic bottles, or pichinga. These are the most common amongst the garbage, and it is astounding how little they are worth. When you drive into la Chureca, you see tents and shacks where people take their items to consolidate and package them up for sale. In order to sell the bottles, they must be washed, smashed, and packed in sacks. The workers receive a mere $2 for that bulk of bottles, and the hours upon hours of work it takes to fill it up. Even worse is the practice of washing the bottles, which happens in highly contaminated water.
So what can you do when recyclable materials are worth mere pennies? Transform them.
The objective of the Nica HOPE jewelry project, run through the Fabretto Children’s Foundation, is to provide a safe, healthy, and sustainable alternative for these women. By learning jewelry making and small business administration skills, the women have a way to make money without putting themselves at risk. Many of the jewelry items created by artisans are created from recyclable materials; a perfect way to elevate the worth of those cans and bottles.
A great example of this would be our “Little Leaf Earrings.”
1 small water bottle provides enough material to make at least 4 pairs of Little Leaf earrings. The artisans are paid just over $1 for each pair that they make, and we sell them in our online store for $12 (the rest of the money is used to cover our teacher salaries, and is reinvested in the cooperative). That means that just one bottle can be worth $48. It’s made me look at bottles and cans (and any other recyclable items I can get my hand on) in a very different way.
The most interesting part is seeing the artisan’s reactions when they see me working with the recycled materials. One day, after a trip to the main office’s recycle dumpster, I entered in to the workshops with a big sack full of plastic bottles. They all laughed and called me a “pichingera,” (a bottle collector). They think it is really funny to see a “Chela” (white girl) doing work similar to what they do in the dump. I hope that my efforts to collect and clean the materials myself shows a bit of solidarity with them and their families, and shows them that the same materials that they collect and sell can be even more valuable as jewelry.
We call the program “Nicology,” a mixture of Nicaragua and Ecology. Jessica Hirst, the founder of the recycled jewelry project, often said that “no one is disposable.” When I am in class and see the kids working, using their brains and their hands and their creativity, that saying just rings so loudly in my heart. The waste thrown away by the people of Managua almost magically transforms into something beautiful and valuable, by the hands of the people who too often are cast aside themselves.
To learn more about the Fabretto Children’s Foundation, or to purchase jewelry, please visit: www.fabretto.org