Turning Trash to Treasure in Yangon
Words & Photos: Ronan O’ Connell
Yangon is one of Asia’s fastest-growing cities, swelling by the day as it becomes an increasingly attractive home for people from Myanmar’s rural areas. This overcrowding in Yangon has created a major trash problem, which resulted in a gigantic garbage dump fire which burned for almost two weeks this April.
Now local artists in Yangon are trying to tackle this problem by re-purposing garbage to use as materials in their inventive artworks and household items. Leading this charge is a mother-and-son team called Shin Thant Upcycle Craft. Daw Cingh Khaw Huai and her 27-year-old son Peter started this business in 2015 not just as a way of making a living, but as an attempt to change the way Burmese people think about waste.
Peter explains this to me as we walk around Hla Day, a funky shop in downtown Yangon which specialises in eco-friendly products. This shop is one of the key outlets for the goods which are handmade by Peter and his mother in their apartment in Yangon’s eastern suburbs.
“Conserving the environment is something which I’ve thought about for many years and been interested in but something which I think Burmese people don’t pay enough attention to,” Peter tells me, as he holds a wallet made from recycled newspaper. “So much stuff just gets thrown away which could actually be used to make things of value. We can’t keep doing that. Yangon is growing so fast, there will be more and more rubbish, so we have to become smarter about re-sing it.”
Peter’s family home is overflowing with used plastic bags and newspapers. He and his mother spend many hours each week sorting through these materials, cleaning them and then flattening them out. Once the bags and newspapers have gone through this process they are ready to be “upcycled”, as Peter likes to call it. The newspaper is compacted, folded and stitched together to make chic purse and wallets. The plastic bags, meanwhile, are heated and pressed into multiple-layers to create a strong material for items like handbags and lampshades.
These products are designed to appeal to Yangon’s increasing number of Western tourists, who make up the majority of their customers. Unfortunately Shin Thant’s upcycling efforts are not yet greatly appreciated by locals. The concept of upcycling is still very foreign to Burmese people, Peter says with a sigh of resignation. It was foreign support which had enabled he and his mother to start their upcycling. In 2014 Peter took part in an eco-friendly project funded by an Italian non-profit organisation in which Yangon locals were encouraged to make creative and useful items from discarded plastics.
This experience convinced Peter that upcycling had a big future in Myanmar. Now he just has to convince his fellow Burmese people of this. “Even though local people haven’t really got into our products much yet, or got into upcycling, I’m confident still that upcycling is the way forward for us as a country,” he says. “The more problems we have with having too much rubbish in the city, I think people will start to understand what we’re doing is important.”