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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In Mumbai ACORN’s Ragpickers Start Rolling

1148844_744986442221029_272931984_nMumbai    I had a sleepless night in Bengaluru, filled with excitement about our progress in unionizing informal workers and always mindful of the constant challenges of early morning flights in the “jams” of India, all of which combined to leave me exhausted once I hit the Juhu Beach area in Mumbai around noon.  No time for whining though, Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director in the city, was due to pick me up within an hour or so, for us to try to rendezvous with Suresh and some of our Bengaluru street vendor leadership who had bused and trained from 18 to 24 hours for a rally to help formulate national hawker demands of any new government.

            Vinod had not received a call from Suresh on his mobile as planned with the exact location, and I suspected he had run out of battery on his cell, which turned out to be an easy guess.  We went to the address of the union building helping to coordinate the rally.  Vinod and I had been there before several years ago thinking we had an appointment that didn’t materialize, but somehow everything now looked different and the scribble-scratch I had with me lacked any recognizable landmarks.  In this old area that had once been one worker colony after another laboring in the giant textile mills in the heyday of colonialism to be shipped to Britain and its world, everything was being uprooted for sky high development, but added to that challenge we were riding under 100-foot concrete stanchions that were designed to hold a coming extension of a monorail or metro of sorts, financed by the World Bank and IMF.  The landmarks might be there, but they were now invisible, though, as we know sadly in city after city in the United States, not as invisible as they will be when they become part of the permanent shadow lands suffocating under these tracks.  Architecturally it was almost an engineering feat of sorts that they could even get the supports squeezed to the street edge of these narrow byways.10152408_744986455554361_122118982_n

            Vinod stopped at a police station and sure enough we had only barely overshot, having missed the mosque across from the hall which was the missing clue.  A run up the stairs gave us a new location not too far away, and by 330 we found our men in front of the rally site, though we had missed by minutes the end of what had been a 7000-strong convocation, rallying around the demands.  After a good briefing with our leaders, tea from the workers’ canteen, and quick goodbyes, we scooped up Suresh and were off to meet others including an Alejandro, who wanted to do a radio interview from his class in Berkeley, as it developed, about ACORN’s work in Dharavi and its connection to the Mumbai music scene because of our increasingly well-known ragpicker band, Dharavi Rocks, that can make our plastic recyclable bins into a massive drum circle.

           1597253_744986418887698_1439177000_o Jumping out at our sorting center in Dharavi though, watching my step, Vinod pointed to his left, and said, “Wade, see this!”  There to my great surprise was the truck we had been trying to acquire throughout the last year in order to expand our members ability to pick up dry waste from the scores of schools and colleges who had agreed to let us collect.  We had raised a small bit of money from friends and supporters for what Vinod had estimated might allow us to get a small, used pickup, but this was something different:  a brand-new, Tata van of sorts with a specially built enclosure in the back to allow us to pile the waste in.  In short this was a beauty to behold with ACORN Foundation and Dharavi Project on the front and all sides, and everything but the classic “horn please” on the back which seems mandatory for most Indian vehicles of the sort.  Some of our members and pickers could hardly wait to get the keys and let me slide in the seats, of course still plastic covered.  I passed on the offer to drive.1956888_744986502221023_421315499_o

            It turned out we had just bought the truck in the last month, so Vinod was enjoying every minute of his surprise.  When I said, but, “hey, this isn’t used,” he just laughed and replied, “You know, Wade, we decided to go big!”

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