November 16, 2010 :
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Dispatch from the ground #9: Wallets from the workshop

Today was an exhilarating yet exhausting day of rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. We had to test out the manufacturing process by which our premier product was made: the wallet (or billetera, pronounced beesh-eh-TERR-ah in Argentine Spanish) that Robert Wells from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) designed for Waste for Life. The sample wallet we’ve been showing around for market research and explanation purposes was produced at RISD by top-notch art students, i.e. the craftiest kids in the class at school. Though those same kids had been kind enough to record a very detailed step-by-step instructional video and some great little metal templates (very clearly labeled – thanks Will and Steph!), we were afraid that our efforts at duplicating their handiwork would be really sad by comparison, at least at first. Furthermore, we had doubts about the materials that we were using, and that the co-operatives would be using too; could waste plastic really look as smooth and beautiful as the samples Will and Stephanie had sent for us?

But we set out this morning for the university with our templates and our heat sealer and a bag full of plastic bags anyway, hopeful and determined. Luckily the Hotpress was working, and once the temperature had been measured on the upper and lower plates to make sure it didn’t vary too much, we started making the plastic-fabric composite sheets and pure plastic sheets from which the pieces of the wallet would be cut and sealed together. Erica got to bond with the Hotpress and learn its particular tricks, as well as the knack of figuring out the correct cook time for the different material combinations and thicknesses. Some of the samples came out crackly and strange; striated if they were cooked too long and delaminated if they were not cooked enough. Others were ruined by discolouration and debris from the liners we put the materials between to protect them from burning in the press. But a few samples came out beautifully – especially a purple paisley bandana Eric had purchased from a vendor on campus.

Eric and Caroline took turns reviewing Will’s wallet video and assembling the wallets. It was slow at first – cut, seal, punch, cut, seal again, etc – but soon the wallets were flying. Caroline became so adept at making them that she no longer needed to look at the video at all, and soon she had cut her processing time down to a fraction of its initial duration. Eric got the knack for using the punches we’d picked up at a hardware store in our neighbourhood a few days before, and only left a few holes in the lab bench. Erica sacrificed one of her tanktops made of a cotton-spandex blend and it became a gorgeous soft blue wallet – and a phone case for Eric. A few of Erica’s plastic bags from Canada, including the yellow and red Home Hardware one that made an almost retro-communist-looking wallet, made their way into the products too. It was great fun to play with the designs and colours, and even more amazing to imagine how much fun the co-operatives would have doing the same once they get their own Hotpress – so many creative possibilities. Caroline recalled the first time they were making plastic composites in that same lab at the university; it was before we had the Hotpress and she had to set the plastic-fabric blends with an iron. We’ve come such a long way!

We identified some possible improvements for the product and the process: a coin compartment, for example, which we could fashion by bending one of the card compartments and adding a snap, would make a lot of sense for a product to be sold in Argentina where people carry more change than cards. Also, we need a thinner more porous fabric, or maybe something with texture to keep the wallet structurally strong yet interesting. We need to go to the Argentinian equivalent of Value Village and get some interesting textiles for further sample-making. We know the co-operatives have clothing samples so we need an idea of what works. Using the right kind of plastic is very important as well, and we will be working with the co-operatives to fix the correct process parameters for time, temperature and material type so that they don’t have to waste their time, materials and energy on producing defective material. We also collected numerous ideas for reducing waste, safety hazards, ergonomic strain, etc. Lots of opportunity for Continuous Improvement – and a long way to go until we have everything fully standardized and repeatable. But for now we have seven wallets, most with some small bits of ‘character’ but all lovely in their own way. A wonderful start for the first wallets manufactured in Argentina!