Zero Waste, Plastics Everywhere, and Developing Countries Pointing the Path

New Orleans      ACORN India’s Dharavi Project has long focused on recycling in the Mumbai mega-slum where we work.  Organizing young waste pickers has led us to create a cooperative of sorts employing scores of recyclers.  ACORN has struck deals with many schools, including the French and American schools there, as well as with the Bloomberg office building to handle and sort all of their recyclable waste.  In Katmandu, Vinod Shetty reported that we also have been able to negotiate being able to operate booths on zero waste at several conventions and trade shows in Mumbai where our recyclers also handle all recycling.  Dharavi has long been famous as a model for integrating work and living arrangements for lower income families in India.  Prince Charles several years ago held the slum up as a model of sustainability.

It is interesting to see developing countries in the global South leading the way in this most fundamental environmental task.  A recent article in Science (September 20, 2019 by Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, Solomon Assefa, Kareem Sheikh, and Jeannette Garcia) highlighted similar work in Africa and steps taken there to deal with plastic pollution that might be the envy of other countries around the world.

The article, written by both recyclers and academics, points out that there are a higher percentage of African countries than elsewhere around the world that have plastic bans.  Rwanda led the way in 2008 by banning nonbiodegradable polyethylene bags as well as their manufacture with strict punishments and enforcement.  Tanzania has a ban, and Kenya is trying a tax.  Kenya is also experimenting with “incentivizing community-led collection that is turning plastics into mattresses and eco-friendly asphalt, bricks, fencing posts, school bags, and shoes.”

Mr Green Africa

Looking at Africa’s largest city, Lagos, Nigeria, and its production of waste of all kinds, the Science authors argue that it represents a huge opportunity for building plastic recycling plants, but limited electrical power and formal and informal workers inability to sufficiently fulfill the demand of such plants for product are stunting the prospects.  It’s a situation of water, water everywhere without a drop to drink, where plastic is equally ubiquitous, but there’s no system that creates enough to keep plants at full capacity yet.

Experiments in Lagos with incentive-based programs include RecyclePoints and Chanja Datti are promising.  In these situations, individual collectors deliver plastic and have their work redeemed by cash or “points” that can be converted into consumer use.  Elsewhere, Mr. Green Africa in Nairobi has built a network of 2000 waste collectors and recycled more than 2000 tons of plastic waste and rerouted it to manufacturers.  Another operation called Plastic Bank is “a social enterprise deployed in Asia, with plans to expand into South Africa.”

As an organizer, I’ve argued solving community sanitation issues is a critical path to power, if achieved.  The crisis in handling plastic in the developing world coupled with population growth and inadequate disposal systems, may force the creation of some innovative solutions that point the path.

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The Challenge of Building Capacity to Get to Scale in India

Doha      All Saturday and Sunday, the ACORN India team and I kept the conversations going as we continued to make progress.   We debated adding a website.  We dug deep on accessing our community radio access through AM/FM and acornradio.org with commitments made to produce weekly shows on a fixed time, as well as exploring the issuing of noncommercial licenses in India now and where we might find partners.  We scheduled a regular team call-in the first Wednesday of every month.  We updated our WhatsApp group.  We planned our next meeting in Sri Lanka with the 2020 Organizers’ Forum, as we ticked off one box after box.

As we plumbed the depths of one campaign after another, the victory on electricity rates in Delhi, the expansion of our hawkers union in south Asia, our path-breaking on the intersection of climate and housing issues in Dharavi, we couldn’t help circling back again to our huge potential and confronting our capacity issues that were preventing us getting to scale, especially given the size and importance of India.  There was no question that we were doing a lot, but it was with a little, keeping us from converting more of our successes to their full potential.

one of the old pools for bathing, water, and rest

The Hawkers Livelihood Act is one good example.  There are more than 300 cities where the Act has not been fully implemented.  We did some mental white-boarding on just the number of food vendors that were a small subset of this informal vending workforce.  Quickly we had a national number of 2.5 million food vendors.  There was a requirement that each of them be certified in food safety, which we were qualified to provide.  We started fleshing out a pilot program where we could certify and train 10,000, with 1000 vendors each in 10 cities, allowing us to expand through both a servicing and organizing model.  We planned to mobilize the research and see if we could perfect a proposal.  It was exciting and doable, but a cloud hung over the discussion when it came to where we might shop such a proposal to win support to build the capacity.

Organizing vendors on the ground to take advantage of our growing numbers in Delhi, Chennai, Mysore, Bengaluru and elsewhere while we are inundated with organizing invitations was another conundrum.  We sketched out the details on registering the union in other locations and doing so as a national union of informal workers.  Thinking about the local in the United States, the growing effort in France, even our tenants’ unions, we concluded that we would also form and flesh out the structure and governance for a global federation.  Heady stuff.  Realistic plans.  Could we convert the plans to scale?  Once again, we were stumbling around the question of capacity.

It’s the old story of organizing — it was a great meeting, but the real test would be how much of the talk we could convert into action.

kite flying is common…2 eagle kites in the air

Please enjoy The Day Tom Petty Died by Brent James & the Vintage Youth.

Thanks to KABF.

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