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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Day 6 of the Fathom Cruise: Wanna Buy Some Artisanal Crafts Made By a Middle-Aged White Guy?

Friday, the final day in port here in the Dominican Republic on the Fathom cruise, I volunteered with an organization known as rePapel, which makes recycled artisanal paper and other crafts. This was in many ways more fun and interesting than my past activities.

We arrived to the most enthusiastic greeting of the week as the women who own and operate the rePapel cooperative sang and danced as we arrived at the site. Speaking of the site, it is a modest home with about 1,000 square feet of space. The cooperative could not afford such a lavish site but with the help of Fathom, they were able to secure the home.

The Women of rePapel greeting volunteers from the Fathom

The Women of rePapel greeting volunteers from Fathom

The group of about 35 volunteers was split into two groups, one of which was assigned to begin work supporting the production of recycled paper while the others of us, the group I was in, went to start work on crafts.

The women make crafts to sell. Ship’s passengers aid in the production of the crafts. That is, under their direction we make stuff that they sell—in no small measure—to us. It is quite a system really. No longer are these artisans required to actually do the labor involved in making their goods that they sell to us, instead they coach us to do it. We then are invited to buy the goods we “helped” to produce.

We worked through several crafting stations, including one where we made hot pads and napkin rings, another where we made jewelry and another where we made candles. I made some real progress on a napkin ring in my ten-minute shift at that workstation. I also nearly glue-gunned my fingers together. At one point afterward as I picked flaking white material from my fingertips, I wondered aloud if that was glue or dead skin from the burns.

The women of rePapel with "their" crafts

The women of rePapel with “their” crafts

At the jewelry station, I strung coffee beans and framboyan seeds in a five to one pattern that had been started by a prior volunteer at the station. Progress on the necklace was slow and I left it unfinished for the next volunteer to continue. The exercise was reminiscent of elementary school and I was relieved not to have been graded on my work.

In the candle room, I really excelled. The paraffin was hot and ready to pour. We simply took turns pouring the liquid, colored and scented wax into small glass bottles of the sort used for baby food. We then dropped a wick on a metal stem into the jars and propped it against a stick laid across the top of the jar to keep it approximately straight up.

After a short snack break, the two teams swapped places and our team was assigned to the recycled paper production. This is where the real magic happened.

My shift began at the end of the process where I used a pipe to press the nearly finished sheet between two sheets of heavy fabric to both smooth the heavy paper and dry it. Once inspected by one of the women in the cooperative, the paper was approved as complete and placed in finished goods inventory. I was a pretty good paper presser, but I was working alongside a fellow who was literally twice my size and he could press the paper at twice my pace. I felt rather inadequate.

Then, I rotated to the front end of the process tearing paper into small pieces about eight inches square. The first part of the assignment was to tear off pieces of the white paper I was assigned that had no ink on it. Once the paper that was left was all covered with print, we tore that into pieces. The clean and printed pieces were dropped into separate bins to serve as the primary ingredients in paper. As to my performance at this task, let’s just say I tore it up.

The final stage of the recycled paper process

The final stage of the recycled paper process

From there, I was invited to operate the blender. At the instruction of my coach, I scooped some liquid containing paper that had been torn into tinier pieces and run through a washing process and poured it into the blender. Then, we ran the blender for two minutes and poured the resulting puree of paper into a tray. I repeated this step a second time, but performed less well, overfilling the blender, require the coach to guide me through some remediation to remove some of the liquid. Once back on track, I operated the blender successfully and poured the puree into the tray.

Next, I got to make the paper! This part is pretty cool. Using a pair of frames, one a flat board about two inches larger than the piece of paper and another that is a frame of exactly the same size with a screen mounted inside. Holding the two tightly together, the frames are dipped in the tray of paper puree and sloshed around a bit like trying to get some of the good stuff in the soup up off the bottom and into the ladle.

Then we drain the water slowly out of the frame and the puree settles into the screen. Once the water is completely drained, the frame with the screen is lifted, leaving the form of a piece of paper. That is carefully transferred to a board on which it will dry. After drying for a time (I have no idea how long) each sheet is pressed, as I’d done at the beginning of my shift.

The women reported that we completed about 250 sheets of people during our combined group’s shift.

Before volunteering, my only idea about recycled paper was from the many commercial applications I’d seen, from napkins to the paper I use in my printer. As I visited with other volunteers, I learned that, due to its unique textures and colors, artisanal recycled paper sells at quite a premium, sometimes up to $2 per sheet for use in arts and crafts.

Clearly, with the help of volunteer labor and a captive group of customers (the same group of people), rePapel is on its way to scaling up a trifecta of impact: social, environmental and economic.


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