Promoting reducing, reusing and recycling: Annika Hentrich (BicicloLab; DE/IT)

Annika Hentrich, who has founded BicicloLab, a brand that is making upcycling look cool, reflects, among other things, on what does reducing, reusing and recycling mean to her, the importance to be aware of what happens to a product when we get rid of it, and the future of products made out of recycled and upcycled materials. 

Annika, how do you define yourself? 

I consider myself a guest on this planet, trying to live responsibly with people and nature. I’m also a practical and creative kind of person who loves to create things. 

What is vegetarianism/veganism for you? 

I try to avoid products, which are not sustainable and a result of mass production. So, it’s not only a question to be a vegan or vegetarian for me. For example, eating avocado everyday isn’t sustainable, because it needs a lot of water and CO2 emission to produce and ship them to Europe. Every product we buy leaves an ecological footprint. Same for the meat as soybeans. The questions are: where do the products we are consuming come from, how much energy was needed and emissions made, how’s been the trade conditions of local farmers/ workers, and is the products free from child labour? So for me, it’s maybe more important to consume ethically and ecologically than to call myself “just” a vegetarian. I have nothing against farmers, who care about their animals and treat them respectfully. Agriculture has to become sustainable and follow ways like permaculture and ethically correct and fair production. Otherwise, we’ll eat our world.

What were your reasons being establishing the brand BicicloLab?

It came quite by itself. I was creating like always things and was getting excited in upcycling materials. The name of the brand is a mix of two Italian words: “bici(cletta)” means “bicycle” and “riciclo” means “recycle”. Two important words for a sustainable life and the core of my creative activity. I upcycle old materials like bicycle innertubes, coffee plastic bags, tetra packs, cork, old paper and similar. Belts, wallets, jewellery, bags and other objects. The next step was to offer my creations at local handicraft markets. And this is how it still works today.

I regularly collect the raw material, the inner tubes, from several local workshops. People like to contribute to this kind of recycling process. And a symbiosis has developed with some bicycle shops: they offer my products for sale. For other handicraft creations, I often also use coffee bean bags. For this purpose, I visit coffee bars, which put aside especially fancy bags for me. I use them to sew tobacco pouches, pencil cases or other accessories. It is great to see how many people appreciate and support the principle of upcycling.

You promote BicicloLab with 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. What does reducing, reusing and recycling means to you?

Reduce: substituting single-use-objects with multiple-use-products, buying less clothes or repairing them instead, using less cars and planes, sharing objects with friends instead of buying them just for my use.

Reuse: repairing instead of throwing away, reusing glass jars in the kitchen, buying second-hand-clothes, thinking twice about the second use before recycling a material. Principally there are uncountable ways to reuse materials in our daily life. We only have to keep us aware of this.

For me recycling starts already before I buy a product. If a product in the supermarket has too much packaging I think twice or avoid it. All products we’ll buy have to end somewhere. And they’re a lot of materials which are not easy to recycle and every country recycles them in a different way, like tetra pack. Recycling means sorting waste correctly, it also means conscious consumption.  Why to buy a new smartphone after one year? The chemical substances in a battery such as cobalt and lithium are degraded somewhere in Africa under conditions that are certainly not sustainable. Not to mention the working conditions far from human rights.

A few years ago I saw a documentary about a garbage dump in Agbogbloshie. I realized how sick global trade is. The garbage dump of the world, wherefrom Europe, Asia, America electric waste was illegally brought in by huge freighters instead of being disposed of professionally in their countries. In this sad place, old tube TVs were smashed to get the minerals and sell them again. These are highly toxic substances. I could see a 9-year-old boy with yellow, bloodshot eyes, exhausted and holding his exposed prey in his dirty hands. His liver was that of an old alcoholic man.

Every item we buy has a past and a future, and therefore an impact on people and nature. We should inform ourselves about its origin and have an awareness of what happens to this product when we get rid of it. I do my best to keep my consumer behaviour sustainable and responsible.

Some say that COVID-19 can lead to sustainable changes, incl. reduced consumption. Some say that this is not the case as volumes of unrecyclable waste have risen, plastic bags made a comeback and many recycling activities have been suspended. Reusing and upcycling was the biggest challenge already before the COVID-19. How do you see recycling and the use of recycled materials, upcycling and the use of upcycled materials in (fashion and product) design? 

That is an interesting question and I can only speculate. One thing is clear: the lockdown set a kind of precedent. Powerful companies (and not only) had to shut down, airports were also closed, huge shopping malls became ghost towns for a short time. On the other hand, there was a lot of speculation and online trading flourished like never before. And suddenly disposable products were back in fashion. But not only. There was also something happening on a psychological level, maybe not for everyone, but for many. It was the direct experience that we all over the world are part of a system that connects us, that we are vulnerable and living beings. The lockdown touched everyone everywhere. And like Greta [Thunberg — D.] said, “We’re in this together.” Maybe it’ll become a kind of conscious seed in some people.

We have seen with the coronavirus that it is possible to shut down cities of millions and decelerate systems.

The next step is to do the same for our planet and for its people, peacefully and responsibly. The issue of upcycling is only a small part of it. And the demand is increasing and so are the creative, innovative ideas. But it should not be an encouragement for the plastic industry to continue producing plastic just because the material is then transformed into another form with upcycling. So upcycling is not the solution, it’s just a strategy. 

It is and will unfortunately always be a question of supply and demand in this kind of system we live in. The most effective way to change this is to renounce, so minimalism and to follow sustainable and human-ethically alternatives. Is this an utopia? For me not, it’s just a paradigm shift in our thinking.

What makes you buy? 

I buy things when I really need them. When it comes to food, I pay attention to environmental friendliness and health. I almost never buy finished products, they often contain many unhealthy and unnecessary ingredients. I love to cook and look at my shopping from a slow food perspective. Regional, seasonal fruits and vegetables and organic products are important to me. With objects, I pay attention to reusability and longevity. I try to disrupt little by little obsolescence and disposability, the two main problems in capitalism. Fashion trends are not as important to me as the people and children who work in the cotton fields. For this reason, I am someone who doesn’t really like to shop because I often have a bad conscience when buying. I often prefer second-hand shops, fairtrade products or exchanging clothes with friends. I generally wear my clothes for many years, dye them, repair them or re-cut them.

The practice of greenwashing is wide-spread in marketing. How do you see sustainability marketing? 

I think you always have to approach the world of marketing with a critical mind. Advertising always has the purpose to sell a product and make money. And it plays with our sensations and uses our sensitivity. Sustainable marketing is a big challenge. A consumer should always look at advertising with a very critical eye, question statements and inform himself/herself/themselves by means of research. So get to the bottom of things, not just blindly follow slogans.

What are the main ways both producers and consumers can contribute to positive environmental and social impact?

By following first of all these simple principles: reduce, reuse and recycle. A designer should ask himself/herself/themselves why he/she/they want(s) to sell a product. Just to make money or to follow more value-driven principles? And a similar question a consumer might ask is, why do I buy something? Just to satisfy my needs or to make a small intelligent and sustainable contribution? The way capitalism works at the moment, it is primarily concerned with profit, exploitation and postcolonialism and less on ethics and sustainability. This has to change. If consumers and designers pursue these two values, I think the system can be changed.

Sakina M’Sa, a French ethical fashion designer and the founder of ethically, socially and ecologically responsible concept store Fronte de Mode has said: “We hear a lot about sustainable development. I like to talk about desirable development. The consumer should be attracted by beautiful objects at democratic prices.” How would you comment on that?

I don’t know, maybe the word “desirable development” does not necessarily mean a step towards a better environment. It depends on our morality and ethical ideals. Then I would rather use the word “loving development”. Because only what we love, we protect. If we try again to love nature, its creatures, including humans, then perhaps we will be able to develop a more altruistic consumption and production behaviour. 

Leyla Acaroglu has mapped sustainable design strategies as Design for Disassembly, Design for Longevity, Design for Reusability, Design for Modularity and Design for Circularity. How would you comment on that?

I absolutely agree with her. It is ultimately madness how we consumers are being hoodwinked. There are courses of study where you learn to manipulate the technology and mechanics of an object in such a way that it will eventually have an end of life: obsolescence. This principle was born with the invention of the light bulb. In California, it has been glowing continuously since 1901. Perhaps the most lasting progress in our time. But if such a light bulb would not have been profitable, it would have meant that the same light bulb would have illuminated the rooms of several generations. Therefore, the filament was manipulated so that it would go out after a certain number of hours. And this is just a small example from our consumer world. Therefore, people like Leyla Acaroglu are important, who remind us of the simple means and methods with which we can pursue a sustainable path in this consumption chaos.

What creative activists, sustainable designers, sustainable entrepreneurs, bloggers, etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?

If there is anything in the world that I want to banish, it is the non-human and non-ecological conditions. The more I inform myself and read, the more I understand that it is not only something in the distance that does not directly concern us and therefore we cannot change the suffering of other people. I have recognized the opposite. In fact, our behaviour in our immediate surroundings can have a deep impact on the environment and geopolitical developments. Perhaps to the rice farmers who grow and harvest the rice we eat, to the miners who mine lithium and cobalt, to the “sold” children who work on cocoa plantations, to the gigantic cornfields in the USA genetically modified and contaminated with glyphosate and other pesticides, all the way to the dispossessed people in Indonesia, whose houses and lands were torn away under their hands to establish palm oil plantations (used in many foods and cosmetics). Nowadays we have to be very careful where our purchased products originate because everything is incredibly interconnected and it is so easy to be fooled just to buy an appealing product.

A film between documentary and poetry hit me deeply a few years ago: Behemoth, a film by Zhao Liang. It shows a radical and clear picture of human purgatory that reminds us how much our lifestyle weighs on the lives of other people. You can draw many parallels between the history of these Chinese miners and our Western world.

What’s next up for you? 

To tell the truth I have to invest in an industrial sewing machine, second hand of course, which is a lot stronger than the one I have. Until today, I have always used my mother’s simple sewing machine. 

Another project I have in mind and heart is to bring the topic of upcycling into schools and maybe initiate small work projects with pupils. I think that is very important., because the future lies in the hands of the children.

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