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For Haiti, Key to Economic Recovery May Be in the Garbage

One year after Haiti's devastating earthquake, the country is still in the early stages of recovery. While financial aid, food and medical supplies have made it to the island nation, which is considered to be one of the poorest countries on Earth, many argue that little has been done to improve Haiti's long-term economic stability.

A Pittsburgh-based group of entrepreneurs is trying to change that. Known as THREAD (The Haitian Redevelopment Directive), the organization is committed to building a factory that turns discarded plastic bottles into fabric for use in high- performance apparel. They hope the factory will be operational by year-end.

The Haitian factory, which plans to initially employ 10 to 15 workers and pay them a fair wage, would be able to supply the fabric to end users at a lower cost than companies located in other parts of the world, while providing jobs and a de facto sanitation system for Haiti’s people. [Looking Back: Images from the Haiti Earthquake]

“I’ve been all over world,” said THREAD’s president and CEO Ian Rosenberger. “The two things I see most are poverty and trash.”

THREAD’s factory would address both problems. By paying locals to recycle their trash, while providing skilled jobs for Haitian citizens, the business would create an economic system that addresses the need for jobs, infrastructure and hope for the future development of Haiti into a country that can compete economically and stand on its own one day. It would also provide a roadmap for the birth of a business that could be used to build factories in other parts of Haiti and in other developing countries.

“There’s not a lot to restart economic engines in the developing world,” said Rosenberger, who works full-time as director of business development for the Pittsburgh-based advertising firm Strategic Images.

The technology to recycle plastic into fabric already exists. Companies such as Patagonia and Nike, already use fabric made from recycled plastic in their high-performance apparel.

The key to making the technology work in Haiti would be re-engineering the production process so it could be done in smaller factories.

“The technology exists,” said Rosenberger. “It’s just a matter of scaling it down, producing a bolt of fabric and getting it on someone’s desk.”

Rosenberger and the rest of the THREAD team — which is made up of business people, individuals from the nonprofit sector and educators — hopes to start raising money for the first THREAD factory this spring.

The company anticipates it will need $250,000 for the first six months of operation and another $500,000 after that. It is actively seeking venture capitalists, angel investors and foundations interested in investing in its project.

Rosenberger believes Haiti is particularly well-suited for this kind of export because the country already has a foundation in the textile industry.

“The environment is favorable for textile exports to the States,” Rosenberger said.  “And, the U.S. government is taking down some of the roadblocks necessary to help jump start business.”

THREAD is partnering with an organization called Haitian Partners for Christian Development as well as with students from the engineering departments Penn State University and at Hungary’s Corvinus University of Budapest.

Rosenberger believes THREAD’s "social-preneurial" efforts are the way of the future for countries trying to pull themselves out of poverty.

“In developing world, you don’t hear words like ‘economic stimulus’ and ‘job recovery,'” Rosenberger told BusinessNewsDaily. “You hear about aid and donations. Those words need to come into conversation.

"Creating jobs is a ladder to climb out of poverty,” Rosenberger said.

At least one U.S. manufacturer of high-performance apparel, such as running shirts, thinks there is a healthy U.S. market for importing the fabric THREAD plans to produce.

"People are starting to pay more attention to where things are coming from and want to buy from factories that are paying a fair wage and not exploiting the environment,” said Jeremy Litchfield, owner of Atayne, a Brunswick, Maine-based manufacturer of apparel that uses fabric similar to what THREAD hopes to produce. “There could be many companies interested in buying from them. There’s a tremendous potential market out there.”