It’s a warm July day in the small harbor town of Ayvalık, on Turkey’s Aegean coast. A horse cart with wooden wheels clatters down a cobblestone street, past a bustling, sun-drenched workshop, its front door flung open. Inside, a half dozen women are hunkered down over long wooden tables, cutting, stitching and crafting. Using bits of thrown-away packaging and factory rejects—leather scraps, swaths of felt, surplus canned-food labels—they’re transforming trash destined for the dump into colorful clutches, purses and wallets to be sold in trendy gift shops around Turkey. Even more remarkably, the women, most of whom have no more than a fifth-grade education, are also transforming their lives: For the first time ever, they’re being paid for their work.
The enterprise, named Çöp(m)adam—which means “garbage ladies” in Turkish and is pronounced chope-madam—is the brainchild of Tara Hopkins, 52, an American who’s been living in Turkey for 25 years. She founded the company in 2008, hoping to create moneymaking opportunities for women while raising consciousness about the environment. Çöp(m)adam now employs 60 women and has recycled more than six tons of packaging, paper and fabric. In 2011 the United Nations Development Programme cited Çöp(m)adam as one of Turkey’s best socially and environmentally responsible businesses.
Growing up in California and New York, Hopkins longed to live abroad but never planned to have a career in business, let alone become a groundbreaking expat entrepreneur. A teacher of English and Spanish in the United States, she saw the opportunity to satisfy her wanderlust in 1989 when she got a teaching job at a university in northwestern Turkey. Nine years later, Sabancı University in Istanbul hired her to launch the country’s first program to make volunteering a mandatory part of a college curriculum.
The concept of volunteering was little known in Turkey at that time, and Hopkins says she initially had trouble convincing students and potential community partners of its importance. “Some organizations suspected I was a spy or a missionary,” she says.
The work was stressful, and so was living in Istanbul. Hopkins bought an old stone house in Ayvalık, about 300 miles south of the city, and escaped there whenever she could.
In her spare time she did volunteer work, and she learned that just 26 percent of Turkish women worked outside the home and only 34 percent completed high school (versus 43 percent of men). The limited opportunities for women weren’t the only concern that caught her attention; she also witnessed a dramatic increase in litter, and she was inspired to seek a solution to both problems. One day in 2007, while doing research on the Internet, she spotted some pictures of handbags made by prison inmates in Mexico from discarded potato chip bags and other types of used packaging. Hopkins contacted the facility, then booked a flight to Mexico City and spent a week learning the technique from the prisoners.
Back in Turkey, she knew she’d found her vocation. She began teaching two assistants how to make bags out of trash so that they could train her future employees. Sabancı University offered to keep her on full salary for a year and fund basic supplies while she started Çöp(m)adam. “The rector of the university saw the venture as a good way to take the civic involvement we’d been promoting at the school to the community level,” she says. A former student became her business partner and set up the company in accordance with Turkish law, which does not have a separate status for nonprofits.
Hopkins moved to Ayvalık full time and spent several months building up her trash supply. She washed discarded wrappers thoroughly to ready them for reuse. Through word of mouth, she found women who were willing to do the crafting. A few showed up in defiance of their husbands. Some were hesitant about joining. “Like many women in Turkey, they cooked, raised their kids and cleaned their houses from top to bottom every day,” says Hopkins. “They didn’t have the confidence to think of themselves as anything other than housewives and mothers.”