Community collaboration turns plastic bottles into clothing at Flint Fit, adds manufacturing opportunities

Community collaboration turns plastic bottles into clothing at Flint Fit, adds manufacturing opportunities
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It was Thanksgiving 2016 and the spirit of gratitude filled many Flint homes, despite an ongoing health concern.

News of the water emergency that contributed to lead poisoning, sickness, even some deaths, was at the forefront of families’ minds as they prepared holiday dinner. This year’s feast would take lots of added effort. In some households as many as 100 bottles of safe water, not poured from kitchen taps, were used to clean dishes and get food on tables, according to Popular Science. One meal required 24 bottles just to thaw the turkey.

St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center’s commercial sewing program played a key role in the new Flint Fit. manufacturing initiative. Photo: Danen Wlliams

Flint’s water consumption on a single, significant day is a tiny snapshot of ongoing accumulation that contributes tremendous amounts of waste material, following the emergency. Empty bottles at homes, in work places, and too often littered on streets require management an innovative community collaboration with a New York museum wants to provide. In the unlikely form of clothing, Flint Fit reuses plastic to create professional opportunities and fuel local industry.

“To see how we took a negative and recycled all those bottles, it turned a negative into a positive,” says Leon El-Alamin, founder and executive director of the MADE Institute for returning citizens.

Beginning last fall, MADE and dozens of other organizations, agencies, churches and volunteers worked together to collect 90,000 empty water bottles throughout the community. Lindsey Berfond, assistant curator of public programs at the Queens Museum in New York City visited Flint, approaching various supporters about conceptual artist Mel Chin’s vision for what became Flint Fit.

“To bring a vision, you really have to ask people if they want it,” says Chin.

Michigan native Tracy Reese and concept artist Mel Chin collaborated to design a prototype of clothing that could eventually be made in Flint. Photo: Philippe Rohdewald

Flint was receptive, including “amazing women” at St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center, he adds. Participants in St. Luke’s commercial sewing program created garments from woven, recycled plastic fiber after the collected bottles were transported to a North Carolina facility and transformed into REPREVE yarn. Assistance from Kettering University, the City of Flint, and numerous others led to what Flint Fit’s coordinators hope will generate more local manufacturing opportunities.

“In the end I hope it will be a Michigan brand, a Flint brand, that can go further,” Chin says.

“We could have a very successful Flint operation,” he says.

In the grand scheme, he says a working business model would place Flint Fit in the community’s stewardship.

Chin collaborated with New York-based fashion designer and Detroit native Tracy Reese to launch Flint Fit. Clothing from the pilot concept was featured in “All Over the Place,” an April 8 exhibition at Queens Museum. The clothes will be showcased again in Flint this summer.

Tina Robbins, St. Luke N.E.W. Life’s social enterprise manager, oversees the business aspect of the vocational programs, including commercial sewing, to empower the unemployed. St. Luke’s women sewed patterns Reese designed into 22 garments now on display in New York.

“It was a big challenge,” Robbins says. “The type of fashion that it was, it was a new style for us to sew, so there was a lot of going on.”

Tina Robbins, social enterprise manager at St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center, helped support a partnership between several local agencies and programs that generated Flint Fit. Photo: Danen Williams

Describing media attention around Flint Fit as “pretty exciting for the women,” Robbins is glad St. Luke’s contribution demonstrates their talents and potential.

Combining artistic vision with old-fashioned resourcefulness has led to a product partners believe can inspire similar projects. While not the first concept to use recycling as a source of product development and commercial enterprise, Flint Fit has potential to blaze a trail as a national model.

El-Alamin likens the effort to Flint’s struggles and the journey of the city’s ex-offenders.

“We’re resilient. We’ve been counted out. The water crisis was just like the icing on the cake of our challenges,” he says.

The concept of converting discarded waste material into clothing designed in America’s fashion capital inspires him.

“I think that’s exciting,” El-Alamin says. “It blows my mind.”

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