Collecting Discarded Plastic (and Data) For That T-Shirt

[Image Credit: Jovan Julien,]
Thread fabric at a collection center in Haiti.
Image Credit: Jovan Julien,
By Gina Faiola

Sure, that shirt you’re wearing may be designed from 100 percent post-consumer plastic, and perhaps you know that it took about 10 or 15 soda bottles to make its fabric, but do you know what country those bottles came from? Do you know how they got recycled or who picked them up? Are you curious about the impact your T-shirt purchase has on supporting the livelihood of the person who collected those bottles? Thread, a Pittsburgh-based B-Corp, is betting that you want to know, and is poised to provide that information when you purchase a product made from its recycled polyester fabric.

Founded in a lightbulb moment following a trip to Haiti — where founder Ian Rosenberger saw widespread underemployment, unsafe living conditions and discarded plastic bottles strewn across streets and beaches –Thread was conceived to take that plastic from “ground to good.” Fast forward three years, and the company is in partnership with Ramase Lajan — an Executives Without Borders NGO program, the name of which translates to “picking up money” in Haitian Creole. Currently, Thread operates in Honduras and Haiti, supporting 225 full-time jobs and 3,000 income-generating opportunities within the collection centers and recycling facilities where the bottles are washed, processed and turned into “flake,” the preliminary plastic material necessary for recycled polyester fabric production.

Each recycling center operates as a nonprofit private entrepreneurship model, and according to Kelsey Halling, Thread’s director of community development, collection center owners who received start-up capital were chosen as well-respected pillars of the community. This helped in overcoming initial community stigma for the dirty work of discarded plastic collection. “There is much less shame now, and plastic isn’t on the streets as much anymore. There’s other waste that gets built up, but plastic doesn’t lie around anymore because people know it’s valuable,” Halling said. 

Added Frank Macinksy, Thread’s director of marketing: “When you ask people in Haiti what they need, they don’t ask for $100 in their pocket or a trip to the market, what they tell you they need is education and jobs. They want the opportunity to have a dignified life through hard work.”

With Thread’s model, entrepreneurial gusto is echoed down the supply chain. Said one plastic collector Louis Gerard Germaine: “If you need to find an income, you can just go out and get plastic to get paid. I am always welcomed by Mr. Gustave and am happy to come to the center to see him.”

Competition also helps to drive this system, as other international companies are simultaneously collecting plastic alongside Thread’s collection centers. What differentiates the centers from each other is often left to the creativity of center owners, who incentivize collectors with cool drinks and televisions broadcasting the latest sporting event; this summer’s World Cup matches were a big draw.

What sets Thread apart from its competitors is the time the team spends at the recycling and collection centers, where they interview and record employee information ranging from the standard — name and hometown — to the more detailed, such as how often and why employees are collecting, what they like about the work, their challenges, and what they spend their money on. This data informs Thread’s process in many ways, but primarily it helps improve their operations for the benefit of their employees. “Our goal from the beginning has been to create dignified work and jobs–that will always be a major push for us. But we are also working with our partners on professional development, sanitation and health training in the neighborhoods where we collect,” Halling said.

Secondarily, this holistic data collection allows Thread to track individual employee impact, and pass that information on to potential production partners for marketing purposes. Said Macinsky: “We have the luxury, and the responsibility, of knowing our supply chain at a granular level. Once we lose sight  of our purpose–the people that are making our fabric and the resulting end products possible–then all of our value goes away. We just become a commodities business that is making as much plastic fabric as possible at the lowest price possible. It doesn’t help us create a true impact.”

And while small-batch, single-source polyester might not make up your favorite T-shirt just yet, more than 55 percent of global consumers recently reported a willingness to purchase products that make a positive social or environmental impact, up from 45 percent two years ago, according to a recent  Nielsen survey. Thread is poised to help drive this change, and make things better in the process. Said Macinksy: “Until we start tackling that first R of the three R’s — which is reducing — and until there’s a cultural shift, there’s still going to be a need for reusing and recycling plastic, which is something that we’re in a unique position to do responsibly. We’re going to be trying to put the band-aid on for a while.”

Gina Faiola is an MBA candidate at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, where she focuses on sustainable apparel production and marketing. She has worked in various realms of retail for single store and Fortune 500 companies, and never quits in her pursuit to turn things green. In other words, she is passionate about seeing shrinking carbon footprints in beautiful and sustainably produced shoes! 

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