Haiti's discarded water bags washed up on area beaches, but one woman had a brilliant solution

·3 min read
From left: Diane Buhler, founder of the Friends of Palm Beach, and Rose Heimann, founder of PeaceCYCLE, are seen Wednesday on the north end of Palm Beach. Buhler began finding more water sachet refuse from Haiti with her beach cleanup organization, and Heimann's company repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products.
From left: Diane Buhler, founder of the Friends of Palm Beach, and Rose Heimann, founder of PeaceCYCLE, are seen Wednesday on the north end of Palm Beach. Buhler began finding more water sachet refuse from Haiti with her beach cleanup organization, and Heimann's company repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products.

From the well-heeled mansions of Palm Beach to the grittier streets of Port-au-Prince, Diane Buhler and Rose Heimann bonded over trash.

Their long-distance acquaintance began in the late fall of 2016 when thousands of clear plastic pouches the size and shape of square drink coasters washed ashore in tony Palm Beach, each with small rips in one corner.

Buhler, who founded the beach cleaning not-for-profit Friends of Palm Beach, thought they were inflatable packing bags used to cushion goods in transit, but the ragged corner tears didn’t make sense.

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When one bag finally washed ashore with writing still legible, it was clear they came from Haiti and were once filled with water – 4-to-8-oz. single-use plastic sachets that likely washed into the Caribbean Sea when Hurricane Matthew hit the island in October 2016 as a Category 4 storm.

An example of a Haitian water sachet photographed on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. Similar to a water bottle, the sachet is bitten to create a hole to consume the clean water within. The small plastic bags litter the Haitian landscape and others have drifted in the ocean to land land on Palm Beach County shores. Rose Heimann's company PeaceCYCLE repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products. Heimann's company creates jobs for workers in Haiti.
An example of a Haitian water sachet photographed on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. Similar to a water bottle, the sachet is bitten to create a hole to consume the clean water within. The small plastic bags litter the Haitian landscape and others have drifted in the ocean to land land on Palm Beach County shores. Rose Heimann's company PeaceCYCLE repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products. Heimann's company creates jobs for workers in Haiti.

"I knew the tear wasn't from fish chewing on it," Buhler said. "(People) tear off a little corner with their teeth to drink."

In Haiti, one woman turned trash into treasure

A Google search led Buhler to Heimann, who has been teaching people in Haiti to turn the ubiquitous water bag trash into a sellable commodity, such as tote bags, purses, phone holders, wine bottle carriers, wallets and even checkerboards.

“Littering is pervasive in Haiti,” said Heimann, who started the company PeaceCYCLE with three employees in 2014 and now has 20. “I tell them that they might not see the difference in what they are doing, but their kids and grandkids will see it.”

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Heimann, an Indiana native and Purdue University graduate, visited Buhler in West Palm Beach this month.

“For me to find her doing what she does, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, here’s a solution that helps keep the trash from coming to me,'” Buhler said. "It puts people in Haiti in a better place and puts the animals that I protect in a better place."

Rose Heimann's company PeaceCYCLE repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products. Heimann's company creates jobs for workers in Haiti. An example of the individualized tags that are affixed to her merchandise was photographed in Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
Rose Heimann's company PeaceCYCLE repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products. Heimann's company creates jobs for workers in Haiti. An example of the individualized tags that are affixed to her merchandise was photographed in Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

But turning Haitian trash into treasure is a challenge start to finish. In the beginning, Heimann said people would make fun of her employees who were picking up the water bags, calling them crazy, or “ou fou” in Haitian Creole.

Once collected, the bags are washed and sanitized, plastic is fused together with an iron heated by coal, patterns are traced and cut, and then a product is sewn on a treadle sewing machine using scrap fabric from school uniforms. The colorful result includes a tag that says how many water bags were used (and taken off the street) to produce the item, and how many people PeaceCYCLE was employing at the time.

When her employees were initially ridiculed for their trash collection, Heimann told them to be patient.

“I said, they will be jealous of you one day,” Heimann said. “And now those people want jobs.”

Rose Heimann's company PeaceCYCLE repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products. Heimann's company creates jobs for workers in Haiti. Photographed in Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.
Rose Heimann's company PeaceCYCLE repurposes Haitian waste into bags, wallets and other products. Heimann's company creates jobs for workers in Haiti. Photographed in Palm Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, August 4, 2021.

Presidential assassination in Haiti has made things tougher

The past year has been even more difficult for PeaceCYCLE with the pandemic and recent presidential assassination making shipping almost impossible, Heimann said. For now, she can only take bulk orders of $1,000 or more and is hoping South Florida shops will want to carry the products.

In the long run, she’d like to set up a sustainable business that can be run by people in Haiti while she handles shipping from the U.S. She’s been living primarily in Port-au-Prince since 2014 after arriving with her "life savings, one suitcase and a Creole dictionary."

“I realized this work was helping people have jobs, so I just surrendered to it,” she said.

One thing Heimann knows is the water bags, which she estimates are bought at a rate of 8 million per day, aren’t going away. Without readily available potable water, reusable bottles aren’t an answer for many people in Haiti, and the water bags are sold cold.

“To buy cold water is really a luxury,” she said.

For more information on PeaceCYCLE, email Heimann at peacecyclellc@gmail.com or go to peacecycle.com.

Kmiller@pbpost.com

@Kmillerweather

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: A solution to water bags that clog Haiti streets, Palm Beach County beaches

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