Meet Cayman’s king of recycling

If there’s anyone who can be considered the embodiment of the saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Bodden Town resident Emile Levy fits the bill.

Mr. Levy specializes in finding treasure among discarded junk and bringing it back to life.

Thread spools, whelk shells, feed bags, smokers, buses, wood pallets, discarded refrigerator drawers and shelves, bottles, pans; you name it, and Mr. Levy can repurpose it, having mastered the art of making money from discarded items, or creatively reusing them as eco-friendly home furnishings.

“Government should give me the dump and I would show them what to do with it,” said Mr. Levy. “It’s a treasure trove of goodies that could create tons of jobs for Caymanians in the recycling business.”

Passionate about the island and the natural environment, Mr. Levy is a big supporter of recycling.

He is also a carpenter, plumber, designer and mechanic. After his retirement from the U.S. Armed Forces and working for 20 years as a master jeweler at a diamond exchange in Philadelphia, the recycling entrepreneur returned to Cayman. At his newest career as a craftsman, he creates colorful tote bags at his business, Camp Buttonwood Recycle in Midland Acres.

As the inventor of the Siggy Bag, he transforms empty animal feed bags into fun, funky and eco-friendly totes and shopping bags.

Mr. Levy said he got the idea to start his recycling business when supermarkets across Cayman started charging 5 cents for each plastic bag and encouraged people to bring their own bags.

While gathering capital for his Siggy bags, Mr. Levy visited local shops, markets, expos and businesses to find out where the demand was for the tote bags.

Along with wife Lyn, the couple first began selling the bags at Saturday’s Market at the Grounds in Lower Valley, and later at the Wednesday Camana Bay farmers market. Since then, he has expanded to a spot on the George Town waterfront where cruise visitors also purchase his locally made souvenirs.

The Siggy tote bags come in a variety of sizes and are adorned with pictures of chickens, goats, cows, horses and dogs. The bags with the chicken designs are Mr. Levy’s favorite since he kept chickens as pets when he was growing up.

But the Siggy bags are just a small portion of Mr. Levy’s wide-ranging recycling projects. To him, almost anything discarded and durable has recycling potential.
Constantly looking to re-purpose cast-off materials, Mr. Levy has a fully functional house brimming with recycled material and furnishings.

Standing outside his home, Mr. Levy pointed to a pile of cut-up grape and casuarina tree branches waiting to be burned and sold as charcoal.

“Food cooked on this wood tastes much better than the coal brought from the supermarkets,” said Mr. Levy.

He explained how the logs are cut into small pieces, then burned in a drum until they are reduced to charcoal.

“These will soon be on the market,” he said.

Among the traditional brick and mortar houses on Mr. Levy’s street in Midland Acres, no one can tell that the base and sides of his front porch and outdoor swing are interlaced with recycled wood pallets he has collected from various job and business sites.

His yard is a maze of recycled items, and nestled between some coconut palms and a lime tree is Mr. Levy’s hidden garden.

“This is where I come to chill,” Mr. Levy said, entering the nature alcove to show off his hammock, white sand pathway lined with conch shells, and an open air kitchen equipped with homemade cooking pan. A tree limb shaved to make a shelf holds calabash dishes and plates Mr. Levy uses for eating and drinking. In the corner, a stack of dried coconuts will be cracked, grated, juiced and boiled to make coconut oil.

Exiting the garden, Mr. Levy sets off down a path lined with re-purposed items like a crate loaded with hundreds of thread spools and whelk shells, and a huge table crafted from a red-painted door. His destination proves an even more unusual sight: a recycled bus he has turned into an office, studio and tote bag distributing center.

Hundreds of bags and aprons line the floor and hang from the ceiling; a sewing machine with unfinished cuttings sits in a corner.

“This is where we bring the bags to get stitched after they have been washed and dried,” explained Mr. Levy.

In the studio section of the bus, he is putting finishing touches to a coral and shell-festooned artwork of former Speaker of the House, Mary Lawrence.

The dedication to recycling and conservation efforts is impressive. He has installed water saving tools in his outside shower and toilets, and even the cabin on the back of his truck is made from recycled wood.

In his kitchen, shelves and drawers from old refrigerators screwed to the walls are stacked neatly with spices and various kitchen items. Outside, a gutted refrigerator has been transformed into a planter for herbs, vegetables and other plants.

“There is so much stuff we throw away in Cayman that can be put to good use,” Mr. Levy said.

“It is truly amazing what people can create if they set their minds to it.”