From Trash to Treasure
The humble plastic bag has become a lifeline to hundreds of impoverished women in Ecuador thanks to Alexandra Munoz '07, who founded an organization that teaches women to weave recycled plastic bags into artisan goods.
While serving in the Peace Corps, Munoz was stationed in the small coastal town of El Guabo, Ecuador. Among the issues facing the community were gender-based discrimination and violence against women.
"One of the main problems that prevented these women from being able to achieve their goals was a lack of economic independence and financial literacy," said Munoz
Another problem in El Guabo was a mass accumulation of plastic bags that was threatening the ecosystem. Unlike other used materials, plastic bags can't be sold to recyclers for profit. So they don't get recycled and instead get trapped in the root system of the mangroves which surround the village.
Seeing a complex challenge, Munoz came up with a solution that would help local women to become financially independent, while also reducing the plastic bag pollutants. The project, called Awashamu, which means "weaving the future" in an indigenous Ecuadorian language, was rolled out in phases.
"The first phase of the project was the creation of community banks—a system of communal savings and micro-credits that provided the women a secure way to have their own savings and take out loans all while learning about managing finances," said Munoz. "Another facet of the project was creative expression, where we used art as a form of therapy—and this is where we started using recycled materials."
Munoz taught local women how to make thread from recycled plastic bags which they used to crochet purses, backpacks, and other types of bags. The organization has since become a successful business and is thriving in the community.
"The creation of this community business has allowed this group of women to emerge as leaders—both as an example of strength and resilience for their families, and as part of a positive change for their community," said Munoz.
Munoz tells the story of one participant who was so shy she never spoke, and barely left her home. But through her involvement with Awashamu, the woman was eventually elected president of the business, has conducted press interviews on a local and national level, and led the community parade that she previously had been too afraid to even go watch.
Munoz has since finished her service with the Peace Corps but remains in Ecuador where she founded Kasa de Colores, a grassroots non-profit that works with communities in the design and management of eco-responsible projects to raise environmental consciousness, build local economy, preserve cultural identity, and protect ecological systems and natural resources.
This summer, Kasa de Colores was honored by Premios Latinoamerica Verde (Latin American Green Awards) which recognizes projects that are working to provide sustainable solutions for human development within the context of protecting the environment. The organization was selected as one of the top 500 "green projects" in Latin America and placed in the top five out of 2,409 projects within the category of sustainable finances.
While Munoz's work has helped countless people in Ecuador, she credits Duchesne Academy with helping her define what she wanted to do and how she would contribute to the world.
"I will be forever grateful for my experience at Duchesne because it provided me with an educational foundation upon which I was taught not only how to question, but also how to be part of a solution," said Munoz. "The Sacred Heart goal of a 'social awareness that impels to action' had an enormous impact on me. I try to carry out this goal in my daily life, and it has guided me in the choices I've made since graduation."