Billionaire Tomorrow

Weaving waste into profit with just a knit and a stich.

Entrepreneur Regine le Roux went from seeing waste to weaving. All thanks to an idea born during lockdown and a bag snagged to a tree.

They say inspiration can strike in the strangest of places. For Regine le Roux, it was one of her first days striding out into the fresh air after three months of stifling lockdown.

With a spring in her step and a gleam in her eye, she noticed a plastic bag flapping in the wind snagged on a tree. A day later she strode past again, it was still flapping. Annoyed and irritated, she grabbed the bag; then paused for an epiphany that was to give birth to a business.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered seeing housekeepers many years ago sitting in the townships crocheting with Checkers bags. So, something told me you know what, just why not go back to that old tradition of crocheting with plastic bags, there must be a way of doing it,” she says.

This was the first step on the road through Hout Bay to hunt down thousands of thrown away plastic bags. Le Roux wanted to use their colour and texture to weave them into shopping bags.

It’s one of the growing businesses of the future. How to turn rubbish that nobody wants into items that people do want.

She called it Re.Bag.Re.Use and with a knit and weave the company turns plastic – erstwhile covering bread, beer and hair destined for the dump – into beautiful bags.

“Lockdown forced many of us to haul out and dust off our hobbies…mine was my crochet pen. I realised just how much plastic was being generated and thrown away every day, so I decided to find a way to repurpose it. [That first plastic bag] was a six-pack beer wrapper. I remember I really battled to cut that thing…but crocheting with plastic worked,” says le Roux.

“To give you an idea what’s in it”, she says, pointing to a table full of procut. “That part was a two-litre milk label, that part there is a whole wheat bread. That’s brown bread and this is beetroot, packaging. Any soft plastic, we can repurpose. We even get some from our local hairdresser that has these plastic aprons.”

After months of experimenting and selling the woven bags at markets, Le Roux chanced upon Maureen Plaatjies who changed the way the business gathered its materials. Not only did Plaatjies wanted to learn how to crochet, but also she introduced her to others in Hout Bay that wanted to make the bags.

"Lockdown forced many of us to haul out and dust off our hobbiesmine was my crochet pen. I realised just how much plastic was being generated and thrown away every day, so I decided to find a way to repurpose it "

“I do pottery. I work with an NGO and while I do online courses like basic computer courses for the community like for the kids and the adults. I’m a jack of all trades and very creative. What grabbed my attention was being able to turn my love and passion and use something that is just lying around being a nuisance to people and fish.”

The idea was a hit and made enough to pay the workers from the Harbour and ImizamoYetho, a local township in Hout Bay, to make scores of colourful bags.

Each bag purchased is the driving force for a business that takes rubbish out of the water and stops it from ending up on a rubbish dump.  The sales help pay a stipend to the crocheters of Hout Bay, the cutters, and also a nearby charity.

The home of the business is as humble as is industrious. It all happens on the second floor of Muriel’s Munchies, a takeaway joint here in Hout Bay Harbour. Inside a handful of women take to their task lwith fingers as fleet and clean as the breeze blowing on this day across the bay.

The stories from these workers come forth as easily as the bags themselves.

“I’m the oldest in the family and my mom used to crochet dolls and runners for the table. I was quite fond of crocheting when I grew up,” says 60-year-old Jane Hoffman, who doesn’t have a permanent job and divides her time between knitting plastic bags and filleting fish.

“I remember we were sitting there at the market and Regina introduced us to the plastic and I was frowning because I’m used to nothing but wool, and I saw the plastic and I remember shaking my head.”

But it wasn’t long before it started to make a difference.

“When the boats are at sea, I’m at home waiting for the boats to come in again and that is the time when I crochet so that’s another type of income for me,” says Hoffman..

“I’ve got two grandchildren which I brought up through circumstances without their mom and dad. I stepped in to look after my grandchildren, my granddaughter is in grade 12 now. The crochet thing is wonderful for me because it is putting bread on the table, it’s putting extra money in my purse. It’s giving extra pocket money for my two grandchildren.”

When Hoffman sees a bag lying around these days she can’t ignore it: “I get angry now when I see plastic lying around outside. And I think whoa, look at this mess, what do people think they are doing, it’s such a waste…My worst is seeing a dog that breaks the plastic to get into the leftover bread.”

It takes about 30 empty bread bags to complete one finished bag. With a bit of practice a skilled pair of hands can knit one in just eight hours.

“Single and double stiches, that’s the easiest way for beginners,” says Susan Mouton, who works as a caregiver and knits at night when home.

“It’s the finer details and the shades and colours and this was kind of amazing how it all blends together.  Because there’s a lot of plastic laying around and flying around. This is something very good.”

Surprisingly the ladies say it is not the knitting that is the most time-consuming part of the work but gathering the ‘yarn’; which entails cutting long streams of plastic into balls with scissors, says Setta Adams, who used to work as a florist before being unemployed three years ago.

“But even in my community, people don’t have money for flowers, you know. So, I’m creative with the scissors, and it has taken me back to when you’re able to work with a tool…. After I have done whatever I have to do in my house, I go to my cutting. I must keep myself busy. I can put bread on the table each day for my two kids, and I can buy milk, you know, for daily.”

Collecting the bags involves just as much work as cutting them. Following countless ‘plastic’ runs Le Roux and the ladies have earned the nickname ‘The plastic ladies’ – a fitting title if ever there was one.

Thanks to their hard work there has been an easing of pressure on litter strewn in this corner of  South Africa.

“It has started to discipline a lot of people with you asking them to keep the bags for you. It doesn’t go in the bin, and it doesn’t just get thrown outside. We’re asking our community to put it aside because now they know it’s for a purpose,” says Adams.

“I normally show them a pic with the lady standing with their bags and I’ll show them this is the outcome of your thread, your parade packet or whatever plastic you will just throw in the pan so yeah through this project a lot of people are changing their mindsets on what they do with the plastic.”

As for the future and what lies ahead. Le Roux wants to see the concept to move Johannesburg and eventually across Africa.

“Crocheting is a skill that people do when you’re younger and then you kind of forget about it. What I love about it is you don’t need electricity for it. So, during lockdown, or when you are getting loadshed, all you need is a bit of natural light, and you can keep creating.”

All from an idea sparked by a plastic bag snagged to a tree.

Photographs : Jay Caboz