Flint bottles hope from its toxic water crisis

NEW YORK, Nov 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Flint was drowning in empty bottles after a toxic water scandal became the latest crisis to hit the Michigan town - this week it fought back with a project that transforms its plastic waste into a hip new line of clothes.

“Flint Fit” is a fashion brand born from the crisis as residents of the Michigan town this week rolled out plans to stitch empty bottles into everything from raincoats to swimwear.

The impoverished community of 100,000, once a thriving manufacturing behemoth, drew national attention in 2015 when research revealed residents were exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their running water.

Bottled water became a safe alternative, alongside water filters.

But with the empty bottles accumulating - the tap water crisis remains unresolved - North Carolina artist Mel Chin devised a way to turn curse into opportunity, joining the community to create a line of clothing from fabric derived from the recycled plastic.

The idea is as much about creating objects of beauty as about reviving some of Flint’s lost manufacturing lustre, as chronicled by Michael Moore’s acclaimed movie “Roger & Me” about the shutdown of its local auto plants.

Flint has faced a run of crises, sinking deep into depression after its car industry shrank, becoming known for high crime rates, dangerous living and for its city falling into financial emergency.

The public health crisis created by the city’s tainted water affected thousands of residents, causing an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, and led to the unsightly bottle buildup.

“I said ‘How can something that is emblematic of a bad situation leave Flint and return as something that is about the principle of hope and regeneration?’” Chin said in a telephone interview as he explained the project.

Inspiration came after the conceptual artist visited Flint last year, and found women stitching hospital scrubs and other garments on a basketball court, part of a community project.

The women of St. Luke’s N.E.W. Life Center are now the manufacturing arm of Flint Fit, as the product will be called.

New York fashion designer Tracy Reese, best known for her ready-to-wear eponymous brand, has designed the clothes, which will revolve around a theme of waterproofing, said Chin.

The creations may range “from bikinis to raincoats, it could be snow wear, sleep wear, it could just be a vest for the chill, for damp weather,” he said.

For Flint resident Barbie Biggs, who has been collecting plastic water bottles for the project, the initiative is a rare positive in a town that feels down and dumped.

“It means that we take something that is painful and make it positive,” the community activist, who is in her 50s, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The Flint Fit collection will premiere at the Queens Museum in New York City with a fashion show and exhibition, expected to take place next April, Chin said.

A fashion show will follow in Flint, he said.

Though still at the prototype stage, Chin said he hoped the enterprise would grown into a viable business. (Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit