Ian Rosenberger: Trash for Dignity

Ian Rosenberger visited Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, mainly to photograph the wreckage. What he saw, and who he met changed his life - and spawned a whole new business. One dedicated to making money out of returning dignity and cleaning up dangerous plastic waste. By Jeremy Torr.

 Ian Rosenberger, CEO, Thread International. Courtesy Thread.

Ian Rosenberger, CEO, Thread International. Courtesy Thread.

Pittsburgh, August 29, 2018. Ian Rosenberger first rose to fame as a contestant on TV’s Survivor back in 2005. He didn’t do that well and was rapidly voted out. Undaunted, he signed up at Pennsylvania State University to study agriculture and education. Coming from an established family of horse breeders, he looked set to settle down on the farm.

However, his future was sidestepped by events, shortly after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010. He visited the island immediately after, and in the process met and bonded with the people and their incredible resilience in the face of such a terrible event. But although some 300,000 people were killed and millions affected by the quake, Rosenberger says that one of the biggest emotional effects on him was seeing the cycle of poverty that the people were being forced to live in.

 Timberland is now producing boots made with recycled fabric. Courtesy Thread.

Timberland is now producing boots made with recycled fabric. Courtesy Thread.

“I realised then, that poverty has nothing to do with money,” he says. “It has to do with the absence of wealth, the absence of dignity, and the lack of access.” That realisation changed his life, and nudged him in the direction he has taken since then.

Today, Rosenberger is the CEO of a for-profit company, Thread International, which supplies global brands like Timberland, Reebok, Aerie and Marmot with raw materials. They use Thread materials for their products. Materials that not only allow for quality apparel to be retailed in developed countries, but also bring jobs and dignity to the people of Haiti. And just as importantly, help clear up one of the country’s biggest problems: its mountains of discarded plastic waste.

Plastic plague

Immediately post-earthquake, one aid worker on the ground was appalled as much by the health situation as the destruction. “We were looking at why the cholera epidemic was so bad,” he said. Working backwards, he realised that it was primarily caused by poor water supplies. That was caused in turn by frequent floods contaminating water sources, which in turn were caused by hundreds of blocked drainage canals.

 Haiti's beaches and waterways were inundated with rubbish. Courtesy Thread.

Haiti's beaches and waterways were inundated with rubbish. Courtesy Thread.

“And that flooding [the primary reason] was caused by the millions of plastic drink bottles being washed into the drains from poverty-stricken people with no waste disposal or clean water options,” he said. It was a vicious circle.

The first step was to clean the drains and canals of the vast amount of plastic rubbish. But that was a not a job that locals relished. They said it was not an honourable thing to do. So there was an impasse: people got sick, the rubbish built up and indirectly caused more sickness.

That was until Rosenberger visited and realised that one sure-fire way to both get the canals cleaned up and the plastic waste mountain cut down was to pay people to collect plastic.

“I realised that around 85% of the trash was recyclable. So I thought, hey, couldn’t we turn all this trash into money?” he says. “It struck me that the waste was actually not a nuisance, but it was a resource. And that all those people were not just poor and unemployed, but a ready labour force.”

Trash money

 Collecting plastic became a way to reduce poverty. Courtesy Thread.

Collecting plastic became a way to reduce poverty. Courtesy Thread.

Rosenberger helped organise some 50 Haitian-owned and operated collection points that would weigh and separate the bottles. He organised collection timetables for delivery to central depots. They would mechanically break down the bottles into flakes, so they could be baled and sent off to the sole recycling plant on the island.

Then the flakes would be heated and chemically treated, and spun into polyester thread for use in making clothes, footwear, bags and more. 

“Polyester is the most used material on the planet. Over 50% of the materials we use daily are polyester based, and the vast majority of that is still coming from (limited resources of) oil,” Rosenberger adds. “[Using recycled plastic] is the same as using virgin polyester, but because it comes from rubbish, it’s actually helping people as opposed to destroying the environment.”

 Today, plastic bottle collection and recycling is a thriving occupation in Haiti. Courtesy Thread.

Today, plastic bottle collection and recycling is a thriving occupation in Haiti. Courtesy Thread.

“When we started Thread, we really wanted to just move the needle a bit, to make a small difference. But now, I think that within the next few years, all the big makers will be using recycled materials as a matter of course for shoes, bags and more.”

Rosenberger says community collection centres in Haiti, Honduras and now in Asia too are picking up plastic that would otherwise likely end up in the oceans - and deplete a finite resource. The virtuous circle doesn’t end there.

Although he points out that to make any big change, a project like this needs to sign up big existing brands, " ... our products are designed to be made up in local shops – we don’t have a big central factory in the US, as we want to use regional, mom-and-pop outfits make up the fabric and yarn into products as far as we can,” he says.

Following this approach, Thread's latest product is a better backpack being marketed on KickStarter. It is handmade from recycled fabric that puts people in Haiti back to work and cleans the environment, but also uses a fully traceable supply chain that helps to support jobs for people in the local community.

Rosenberger says a bonus that helps his project is that today's consumer attitudes are changing. He points out that purchasing decisions used to be about the product and its capability. Was it high tech? Was it waterproof? Did it last a long time? Was it windproof? But today, he says, things are changing. 

“Now, you can care about who touched it, and you can be proud of the people that made it.”