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How one man turned Israel's Gaza blockade into a business opportunity

Ahmed Ramlawy's plastics company survived Israel's Gaza blockade by buying garbage at $395 a ton and turning it into products all Gazans need, like trash bags.

By Liam StackCorrespondent / November 17, 2010

Palestinian children run next to international flags of countries whose activists participated in a flotilla to the Gaza Strip, during a protest against Israel's interception of Gaza-bound ships at Gaza's seaport in Gaza City, in this May 31 file photo.

Adel Hana/AP Photo

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Gaza City, Gaza

At the end of an alley in Gaza City’s Tofah neighborhood, an industrial ghost town full of quiet factories and unused warehouses, sits the Ramlawy Plastics Company.

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The factory once hummed with the activity of 45 workers turning raw Israeli plastics into bags, storage containers, bottles, and pipes. Manager Ahmed Ramlawy says that in those days they made fat profit margins of 20 percent.

Those were "the good days," he says, before Israel imposed an economic blockade on Gaza when Hamas took control of the territory in 2007 after a brief civil war with its secular rival, Fatah. Once the blockade was in place, Mr. Ramlawy's factory was unable to obtain raw materials from its Israeli suppliers.

So, he improvised.

“During the siege, recycling was the only way to survive,” says Ramlawy. With its supply chain severed, his firm began to collect plastic from the trash to melt down and turn into new products. “Otherwise we would have had to stop completely.”

Thanks in part to Gazans like Ramlawy, Israel's blockade has been a double-edged sword for Gaza's environment. While the sanctions have exacerbated environmental problems ranging from sewage overflow to contaminated water, the scarcity of a wide range of goods has led both entrepreneurs and everyday people to turn to creative and entrepreneurial solutions.

Once Ramlawy Plastics could no longer obtain Israeli raw materials, it replaced them with garbage, such as broken chairs and empty potato chip bags, bought from Gazans for $395 per ton. The company washed and mixed the materials with Egyptian plastic smuggled into Gaza through the Rafah tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border, and made them into something new. The Egyptian plastic is poorer quality than what they formerly bought from Israel.

It kept the company alive, but profits have shrunk to 7 percent and Ramlawy now employs just five men full-time. Production costs have tripled and demand has plummeted.

Shifting focus from irrigation pipes to garbage bags

But in a place buffeted by so much hardship, Gazans have learned to make do any way they can.

In Gaza City, demolition-cum-recycling crews scavenge what concrete they can from the rubble of war. Crews of young men and boys huddle at the edge of wrecked buildings with pick axes and shovels, carting chunks of cement off in donkey carts to be crushed into gravel that can be used to make repairs.

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