By Gaby Gloria
At exactly 3:30 in the afternoon, with most of her household chores done, Nancy Surilla walks to the nearby barangay community center. There, other women from her barangay chat excitedly, sharing stories that range from daily experiences at home to the latest showbiz news. In one hand, each of these women hold golden instruments that are no larger than pencils, and no thicker than chopsticks, and in the other, long, colorful strips of plastic. As they chat, the women weave the golden instruments through the plastic strips, each creating a product that will eventually become a wallet or bag. Shortly after Nancy’s arrival, a young woman arrives and proceeds to teach them a new technique in the art of crochet.
Nancy, like the other women in the center, is part of the non-profit organization called Invisible Sisters. Founded in 2009 by American artist Ann Wizer, the Invisible Institute was a simple solution to the complex problems of poverty and garbage.
INVISIBLE trains and employs Filipino women from depressed communities to make crocheted bags out of waste such as the common plastic sando bags normally used in wet markets and commercial establishments.
Each week, these women attend a training session where an instructor introduces them to innovative techniques for preparing recycled plastic as raw material and executing various crocheting techniques. When they complete the 48-session program, INVISIBLE hires them to be part of the official production team that supplies sales outlets such as SM Kultura Filipino, Ayala Museum, and EchoStore.
The rate and production volume depend on each woman’s skill. Normally, a simple bag takes two to three days to finish and a clutch bag just a day. Smaller products such as wallets and key chains take a matter of hours. At present, 11 communities in Metro Manila serve as livelihood sites that contribute to the production for their sales outlets. These include barangays in Taguig, Paranaque, Quezon City and Manila.
The organization’s name is fittingly about unseen people and unseen waste. The term “invisible” refers to two fundamental parts of the program. The first part refers to the materials they use, which are normally ignored because they are seen as trash or debris. The second refers to the employees –all are women like Nancy who are not part of the regular work force, women who are normally looked over by members of society.
When they started out, the women would collect plastic bags from creeks, esteros, and rivers, wash them, and cut them into strips to crochet. Their methods of collecting changed in 2011 when they partnered up with the Philippine Plastic Industry Association (PPIA) and Ayala Malls. As a result, plastic collection bins were set up in a Glorietta 5, Greenbelt, Trinoma, Market! Market! and some Ayala Residences buildings.
The collected plastic is then recycled by PPIA and given to INVISIBLE in large rolls of uniform colors. The plastic from the rolls is divided and distributed to the different livelihood sites to make the bags and wallets seen in stores.
In 2011, INVISIBLE partnered with its biggest supporter to date, GKonomics , the social enterprise development arm of Gawad Kalinga. The partnership led to the set up of their present office inside the GK building in Barangay Pinagsama, Taguig City. GKonomics also helps INVISIBLE with its marketing and training needs. Other big partners include the De La Salle College of St. Benilde (CSB), which provides training funds and helps with programs that address the needs of the women in terms of their livelihood, health, education, and personal development.
Training funds also come from companies such as Accenture Philippines, the Philippine Women’s Association-UK, and the Consuelo Foundation. There have also been partnership projects between INVISIBLE and two Philippine-based brands. INVISIBLE pouches were the packaging material for Silverworks jewelry, and shoe retailer Figlia sold INVISIBLE bags in their stores.
Over the years, more and more projects have been piling up for the organization. In 2013, they began to address the concerns of the women in terms of health, giving them free eye checkups and glasses. CSB has offered scholarships in courses for BS Marketing and Management which are currently open to Invisible women who are high school graduates. They are also working out a scholarship program with CSB to provide college scholarships to the children of the women.
It is with these actions that INVISIBLE hopes to educate consumers and to encourage them to take action themselves through simple ways such as recycling and throwing their trash in the right place.
INVISIBLE has definitely taken a big step forward in dealing with poverty and pollution, problems that plague Philippine society, with its array of colorful crocheted totes and pouches. With over 700,000 plastic sando bags recycled, over a hundred women hired, and thousands of products sold, INVISIBLE is set to take the world by storm; to set an example among the people of this world, reminding them that something can be done, no matter how big we think a problem is.
For Nancy and women like her, the percentage of the profit they receive every time a bag they make is sold, has a huge impact on their daily life. The money they receive enables them to buy food for their families. Nancy and her invisible sisters no longer feel helpless or worthless — they have become relevant and useful members of society. And it is this they owe to the organization. With their gold wands turning trash into beautiful objects, the Invisible Sisters are weaving a wonderful and practical solution to poverty and pollution, for communities all over Metro Manila.