How do you connect these two seemingly irrelevant concepts — selling lingerie to Muslim women in the most conservative part of Egypt and plastics recycling? Well, the missing link is Chinese entrepreneurs.
In this intriguing story in the Aug. 10 issue of the New Yorker magazine, the author brings us to meet with a group of Chinese merchants who sell racy lingerie to conservative Muslims in Upper Egypt.
These brave-hearted migrants barely speak the local language or English. Some never had formal education. They have little knowledge of or interest in their target customers' religious and political background. But they manage to win the trust and loyalty from their local customers and employees.
Plastics comes into play when a Chinese couple who were building a small lingerie business empire in Asyut took notice of garbage sitting in landfill around the city. Unlike other people who had made the same observation but just walked away, they jumped on the opportunity and imported a PET bottle recycling line from Jiangsu province in China and established the first plastic bottle recycling facility in Upper Egypt.
They had no previous experience in the plastics industry, but it was a quite straightforward thought process — “I saw that it was just lying around, so I decided that I could recycle it and make money,” the story quotes the Chinese businessman.
The recycling plant now employs 30 and grinds 4 metric tons of bottles every day. The materials are sold to Chinese people in Cairo, who turn them into polyester thread. The thread is then used by garment makers in Egypt, and some of them also are Chinese.
The author nicely summarizes this amazing model: “It's possible that a bottle tossed onto the side of the road in Asyut will pass through three stages of Chinese processing before returning to town in the form of lingerie, also to be sold by Chinese.”
The Chinese recycling business helps support local trash scavengers, truck drivers and children [who are paid by scavengers to collect bottles].
Then the author asks a thought-provoking question: “Here in Egypt, home to 85 million people, where Western development workers and billions of dollars of foreign aid have poured in for decades, the first plastic-recycling center in the south is a thriving business that employs 30 people, reimburses others for reducing landfill waste, and earns a significant profit. So why was it established by two lingerie-fuelled Chinese migrants, one of them illiterate and the other with a fifth-grade education?”
But wait, there are more plastics angles in the story.
In a society where women traditionally stay home, a Chinese businessman who runs an injection molding shop actually employs 20 local women on his assembly line making inexpensive plastic dishware. Their wages helps some of these women to save up money so that they can purchase the necessary things for their marriage — including lingerie. Apparently, marriages can get delayed or even broken off if the expected objects are not prepared.
A pretty interesting story, isn't it? The Chinese not only recycle plastics scrap imported from the rest of world, they also go out there to set up local plastics recycling operations in places where it hadn't been done.
I've heard and read about Chinese recyclers in many parts of the world — Western Europe, sub-Sahara Africa, Southeast Asia, you name it.
The Chinese didn't invent plastics recycling, nor did they perfect it (in the sense that they still don't possess the most cutting-edge recycling technologies). They are not out there to reduce those countries' landfill or save their resources. They simply work hard on it to make money for their families.
Sometimes, that works out better than grand plans.