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Ruth Gabriel, founder of Alternative

When the bottle is empty, the possibilities are full

Our desire to buy new things, acquire new products, upgrade our phones, homes, and our cars is escalating with today’s age of material abundance and consumerism. We want the new, we want the best and we want it now.

And this desire is far more reflected in our cities, where convenient and easy to use products have taken over the market (and our lives). We are disconnected to an item’s essential value, because hey, we can easily disregard it and simply replace it.

Given all the trash that we generate each day, a growing population, the shortage of resources and space; an alternative way of living will be indispensable to survive, where ‘waste’ is prevented from going to landfills, and reducing the amount of poison in our water, soil and the air we breathe.

With the knowhow and a little imagination, Alternative Addis, an upcycling business with a perspective of environmental and social impact, is challenging the status quo perception of ‘high quality’ or ‘the best’.

“We are trying to raise awareness not only on the values of everyday items, but also alternatives to throwing away used items,” explained Ruth Gabriel, founder of Alternative Addis, adding, “Upcycling, reusing and repurposing are some of the ways we can get the most value out of the resources and energy it took to produce them originally.”

Located around Lideta, Addis Ababa, the workshop gives used bottles a new purpose and a second life. With gentle hands, they are transformed into packaging jars, containers, drinking glasses, and modish lamp shades. 

“A more familiar concept is recycling,” Ruth clarified, “where unlike upcycling, waste is sent back to the factory with aims to break materials down to their basic unit (by crushing, melting, or dismantling) and get converted to raw materials. During this process it often consumes more resources such as energy and water in order to produce a new and often a lower quality product, whereas upcycling is a more creative process of transforming the waste material to a new product, new use and high value.”

At Alternative Addis, used glass bottles are considered raw materials, not waste. Conventional bottles are weekly collected from hotels and restaurants. “We were received positively by every business we approached, they were happy to give us their used bottles,” said Asferachew Araya, a team member.

Encouraged by this, they are planning to source more bottles from door-to-door trash collectors, creating additional job opportunities.

“After collection, different shapes of bottles are sorted by color. Then we soak them for up to two days. Once soaked, they are washed to remove the labels. Next, we score them, and cut the bottles into a desired size by alternate application of hot and cold water. Finally, we sand them for a clean smooth finish.

“Our entire process is chemical free, and our products are food grade.” “To further minimize waste, we are currently approaching glass manufacturers so that they could take our scraps (cracked and chipped glass pieces) and recycle them,” he said.

According to Ruth, in the first five months of being operational, Alternative Addis has given new value to nearly 10,000 waste glass bottles that would have otherwise ended up on unregulated landfills. “More than fifty percent of our products serve as an alternative and sustainable packaging solution to individuals and local and international business.”

“Alternative Addis is not just about bottles and jars. It’s more about changing the mindset of our community than it is about the finished product itself. We want to show that it’s possible to create something useful, environmentally friendly and aesthetically appealing; without exploiting new resources,” Ruth said.

Ruth has an academic background in International Development. She worked in NGOs and international organizations, which, she says feeds into what she is doing today. “It all started as a personal blog,” said Ruth, recalling the time she moved back to her hometown, Addis, “trying to rediscover the capital by exploring places, people and understanding the social enterprise scene.”

“That inspired me to start my own project. Creating eco-friendly and locally made alternatives while advocating for more conscious consumption and production and supporting the move towards a circular economy.

“The bigger mission,” she says, “is changing the mindset of our communities, challenging our society’s perspective of what is considered ‘best or high quality’. There is so little thought given to what happens to the material after discarding it and that should really be one of the factors we highly consider when making personal or business decisions.”

“We aim to impact the way in which waste and consumerism is perceived and advocate for a lifestyle where circularity is at the core when approaching design, production, marketing and the overall business model. That is why we not only produce upcycled products but hope to inspire a different lifestyle and value given to what we consume and how we choose to do it in the first place.

Waste reduction is an important goal that is shared by anyone who wants to help preserve the environment. But the term ‘environmentally friendly’ has always remained ambiguous.

“‘Environmentally friendly” and ‘sustainable,’ have become widely used terms, too often lacking substance and meaning,” Ruth said, when discussing the concept of sustainability. “Sustainability is a process. It’s not something you achieve entirely, but you can always strive to be better, to be more conscious and act more responsibly towards our environment. It’s a work in progress.’

Alternative Addis envisions scaling-up the business by investing in people and technology while maximizing local value creation. “To grow the business means to push more resources back up the value chain until it becomes significant to cities, municipalities and business. We envision expanding and diversifying our use of waste materials to develop upcycled products that serve as an alternative solution to the challenges and needs of the local and international market and businesses.”

Our city generates more than 440,000 tons of waste per year; where 30 percent of it is dumped into rivers, creating pollution and harming the ecosystem.

Throwing away perfectly good recyclable material is a waste of our natural resources. And as Ruth has it, “waste, in all its forms, can be valuable if it is considered as a resource input itself. There is not only a linear approach towards production and consumption, it is also a phenomenon translated in the way waste and its clearance is perceived and approached.”