Plastic rarely gets recycled, ending up in landfills and our seas. From waste-reclaimers to waste-preneurs laboriously upcycling all kinds of material, will the circular economy become mainstream before we choke up our oceans and the planet with immutable rubbish?
DID YOU KNOW THAT THERE ARE FIVE DEBRIS islands – just waste – in our seas worldwide? For example, there is an entire floating island of trash, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, somewhere in the North Pacific Ocean, now greater in size than South Africa, at 1.6 million square kilometers.
And how not?
Only 9% of polymer ever gets recycled, the UN Environment Program reports, so this is not surprising. After disposal, plastic gets exposed to water, sunlight, wind, and various elements causing it to degrade into smaller particles, or ‘microplastics’, a word thought to be used first in Africa by Ryan & Moloney in their research on South African beaches in 1990.
So how is Africa doing in this regard?
Greenpeace says out of 54 African countries, 34 have either passed a law outlawing plastics with implementation, or passed a law with the intention of implementation. Of those, 16 have totally banned carrier bags or have done so partly, without yet introducing regulations to enforce the restrictions.
The East African state Eritrea was the first to embrace an outright sanction on plastic bags in 2005. The outstanding achievers though are Kenya and Rwanda. Importing, manufacturing or selling single-use plastic bags could earn companies a fine of $40,000, while using one could see individuals fined a whopping $500 in Kenya. In Rwanda, a national ban in 2008 on non-biodegradable plastic bags was instituted, prohibiting the making, use, import and sale of bags.
Rwanda also famously introduced Umuganda, a community clean-up campaign held on the last Saturday of every month, one of the reasons the country is impeccably clean and green.
In October 2019, Rwanda became the first country in Africa to issue a complete prohibition on all single-use plastics. These are prohibited from the moment you land in the airport.
South Africa has only banned thin polymer carrier bags, with a levy on thicker plastic bags.
The African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) in Johannesburg, South Africa, functions as an umbrella organization for 5,500 reclaimers – a more respectable term for waste-pickers – doing the important eco-friendly work of sorting through trash to separate cardboard, bottles and plastic.
Speaking with FORBES AFRICA, a representative of ARO, Luyanda
Hlatshwayo, says the locally attributed name of ‘bagerezi’ translates loosely to ‘hustler’. These men certainly are hustling; sorting through waste, while using trolleys to cart kilograms through the busy streets of Johannesburg – but keeping the environment and the localities clean at the same time.
In 2021, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) awarded ARO the Living Planet Award for Organisations. Hlatshwayo says this is one of the first glimpses of recognition for the environmental workers at ARO.
In South Africa, Cape Town citizens heard of ARO through word of mouth, and initiated meetings in December 2021. Hlatshwayo says this organic growth is what ARO is about; if it makes sense in Brixton, then it makes sense in other places.
“Giving the reclaimers a platform to engage stakeholders and city officials in Cape Town, created traction and a positive reaction with the local municipalities,” Hlatshwayo says. He explains that education programs for residents are highly important so they sort their rubbish appropriately.
ARO, alongside the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa, conducted a registration drive in February, identifying reclaimers. Hlatshwayo says it is important to engage government, so policy change can be enacted and environmental workers can be integrated.
“Industries do understand the role of integration; Unilever started paying a service fee for work done – this was piloted in 2019. By the end of 2022, we would like to see every municipality paying a service fee, and with records of the reclaimers,” says Hlatshwayo.
He adds that the organic growth of ARO is based on social upliftment and the work that goes with it. “Where do I leave my daughter if I need to go to work, and [leave the house] at 3am?” he says.
So, ARO is opening an informal crèche with retired teachers volunteering their time. The crèche will also provide meals. ARO also has a food garden. “This is a way we change their fate,” he says, about the children.
Rubbish does not always end up in landfills, but also goes into the waterways and stays in communities. Litterboom is a South African NPO founded by surfers who want to clean up the oceans. They use a rudimentary but effective design: a tube that catches floating waste before it reaches the ocean.
In January, when masses of waste blocked the Umhlanga river in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, Litterboom jumped into action, clearing 190,000kg of rubbish from the river. Their first mandate is to clean rivers, while their second is to offset landfills and recycle. Usually, vigilant teams are able to recycle 95% of the rubbish they collect from the waterways.
“The informal waste sector has been going for many years now and contributes to probably about 70% or 80% of recycling in South Africa. So they play a huge role in that ecosystem,” says CEO of Litterboom, Cameron Service.
2022 is a pivotal year for Litterboom, initiating land- based programs in communities to innovate ways to deal with waste. A number of companies have approached Litterboom about meeting extended produce responsibility (EPR) offsets.
Service thinks there should be a subsidized, incentive model for the estimated 80,000 informal waste reclaimers around South Africa and the communities. Connecting corporate to the informal workers would stimulate the informal economy, he suggests.
“I’ve been doing a lot of work on decentralized innovation hubs, so you know what’s happening at a community level in terms of shredding, in terms of making things, in terms of creating a supply chain of products so that the plastics accumulating in these areas are being used either shredded and increased in
value,” says Service.
“So if you can shred it and be moving it out of the communities
more efficiently, then there’s more money in the whole value chain. Then on top of that, how do you stimulate innovation in terms of making things? So there’s lots of waste beneficiary action projects that are popping up everywhere and that’s great,” adds Service.
He says the process is fragmented, questioning how an ecosystem of reclaimers and entrepreneurs working together to make products out of polymer can be created.
“So it’s more just kind of the precedent that is being set, that yes, there’s emerging opportunities for fixing problems. The best businesses are built because they fix problems and that for me is exciting,” says Service.
Rivers are symbolic for Service, as a geographic connector through society, where most communities in South Africa don’t have enough service delivery.
“Whether you’re on the coast and we’re the last line of defense before the ocean or whether in Johannesburg, the principle remains the same. We need to start and I think the challenges are universal. We’re going to be facing illegal dumping, we’re going to be facing lack of waste infrastructure, we’re going to be facing lack of education,” he says.
They want to look at mechanisms to pull resources out of the rivers and deal with things on land, as it will be more cost- effective. He says if you’re living on the breadline and there’s a financial incentive, that’s a big motivator.
He also speaks to business engagement.
“They need to start reinventing the system at a consumer level, so that they can retrieve their plastic before it reaches the environment, because it makes more business sense to do that. It’s more feasible for them to do that, than to pay the Litterboom Project to collect stuff out of the river. It’s going to be a lot easier for them to have collection points and some sort of subsidy mechanism at a very local level,” says Service.
“So, these sorts of companies are looking at these circular models. I don’t necessarily believe that recycling is the answer. I believe it’s one of the mechanisms we can use, but I also believe wholeheartedly that we need to minimize the amount of single-use plastic being circulated,” adds Service. Even if recycling is ramped up to 50%, Service questions what will happen to the rest.
Circular economy – possible or just a pipe dream?
To speed up the adoption of a circular economy mindset, and establish what has worked in the past, the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA) is hosting WasteCon 2022 in October.
“We will soon shift from a period dominated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic to a period of focus on realizing the concept of a circular economy,” says Brendon Jewaskiewitz, President of the IWMSA, in a press statement. “The sustainable use of natural resources and the protection of environmental health is something that can’t remain on the bottom of the agenda any longer.”
The circular economy model suggests an indefinite reuse and recycling of products.
In this model, products ideally would be designed for durability and re-use, with disposal considered a last resort.
“Single use items started as a convenience, then some became a symbol of luxury, and during the pandemic it became a necessity to protect human health,” says Jewaskiewitz.
“The reality is however one that very few want to face; we are running out of landfill space at a frightening rate, and alternative waste disposal solutions are simply not popular or affordable enough to compensate for the vast amounts of waste created every minute,” adds Jewaskietwitz.
Another project underway by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), supporting a number of African circular economy enterprises under the MARPLASTICCs initiative have borne fruit in 2021, operating in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, as well as Thailand and Vietnam. About 15,959kg of waste
was collected in Vilanculos, Mozambique, and 29,794kg of material upcycled in Durban, South Africa, with 21,081kg stopped from leaking into the bay. In Kenya, 1,000kg of plastic is being processed each month at the EcoWorld center, with 100 waste-pickers receiving an income and 30 community members upskilled on making upcycled products.
From waste to wearables
The problem with polymer is the single-use production and consumption. In Kampala, Uganda, 500 tonnes are produced daily, reports Faith Aweko, founder of Reform Africa.
Upcycling plastics into colorful schoolbags, waterproof toiletry kits, fanny packs, tote bags, and durable clothes pegs, Reform Africa is turning one man’s trash into another woman’s treasure.
One of the founders, Aweko, grew up fending off the garbage that came with floods. Alongside a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mema Rachel, and Naluyima Shamim, she founded Reform Africa.
Notably, ‘Buy a bag, give a bag’ is a subsidized project where the bags bought by customers mean another is given – either a backpack or pencil case – to rural school children in Uganda. Growing up in Uganda and Congo, they say they know how hard it is for most families to pay school fees, and came up with a way to keep kids’ books safe.
“Then we also still distribute the bags for free; like last year, we worked with UNFPA and distributed 1,000 bags to refugee communities here in Uganda. Then we also worked with Giving Joy Grant where we distributed 500 bags to the refugee community,” Aweko says.
She adds that along with the bags, scholastic supplies, re-usable pads and manuals on how to use menstrual products were packed inside, partnering with a third-party organization.
It all paid off.
Reform Africa won the Social Impact Award held at the Social Innovation Academy (SINA) in Uganda in 2019. More recently, Reform Africa has been awarded the ‘Impact your Community’ grant from ShareYourself. Bottles are the next item on the agenda for Reform Africa, and they are looking to make jewelry and furniture, using the money awarded.
Besides the three founders, they include seven permanent workers and over 25 part-time women who collect, sort and wash, along with a few tailors and designers who fuse the materials.
They manage to upcycle 300kg-500kg of plastic a month with this small team. Despite a ban in 2007, Aweko says it is ineffective and there are few recycling facilities. She says awareness is important, as people don’t embrace ethical or upcycled items.
“So I’m creating awareness about sustainable ways of living, and also training them on recycling, but the bigger picture is to see that there are government regulations on companies that utilize plastic as
a resource. Because with the competition among different companies comes a lot of plastics, like the soda companies introducing different prices or different flavors,” says Aweko. She adds the introduction of an environmental tax would be useful, so that tax can be financed back into recycling, providing dustbins or even investing in small companies doing this work.
She says there can be a shift, if it’s a collective effort, where people separate their waste, and perhaps
that would reduce dumpsites. “There is a lot of waste that cannot even be recycled. But if we embrace the circular economy, then we are able to separate organic wastes, and we’re able to recycle plastic, we’re able to actually provide employment or even business opportunities for people out there,” says Aweko.
“It’s getting people opening their eyes to us, and to climate change. Because climate change in Africa, even in Uganda, is something we see as a Western world thing. And yet, in Uganda, 80% of our economy relies on agriculture and we are not industrialized. So any change of wet weather patterns mean there’s no food. The plastic being polluted on our soils mean we’re having less and less quality produce, so people need to open up their mind and realize that climate change is not something that’s going to happen in 2,000 years to come. Climate change is something that is happening now. And we just have to open our eyes and move into sustainable ways of living,” Aweko explains.
Shamyra Moodley is a South African designer whose creations are handmade and homemade, using donated or reused fabrics in traditional and trendy ways. Her fashion label is Laaniraani. Previously an accountant, she moved from the corporate to the creative space.
“I want to stick to this, I think sustainability in fashion hasn’t cracked the equation, no one has got it right. Multiple little elements of a few things that need to happen. And the key – coming from an audit background – has to be legislation,” says Moodley.
She adds consumer education is also important.
“It’s key to change. As designers, we should know that the only way to move forward in fashion is through sustainability, there isn’t really any other choice. You know things have been going on the way they have for many generations, and they just can’t continue to go that way. So as a designer, I’m very excited to be here at the brink of this change,” says Moodley.
As a consumer and a mom, she feels passionately about sustainability, while acknowledging what a huge challenge it is for designers. Patience and passion are key, she says.
As a self-taught designer, she uses every last scrap of material, whether for embellishments or for the inner lining of clothes, to make something she hopes will be passed down to future generations.
Just like the planet.