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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Visiting Mundka, Delhi’s Plastic Recycling Center

P1010025Delhi We climbed onto the first Delhi Metro train at Nehru Place and after three more train transfers on this fairly amazing and new subway system, we had reached the very end of the line in Mundka in the Delhi suburbs.  I wanted to see what Kaveri Gill in Of Poverty and Plastic had called perhaps the world’s largest plastic recycling hub, and certainly the center of this huge industry in Delhi, one of the world’s largest cities in a country where 70 to 80% of what can be recycled is recycled (compared to 7% in the USA for example!).  I had first been tipped off to this book while meeting with Delhi-based author and former USA community and labor organizer (and current Social Policy contributor), Mridula Koshy, on my last visit to the city, and the book had proven invaluable in helping me understand the economics and markets where our waste pickers were critical field troops.

Leaving the Metro, we then walked several kilometers along the bustling highway until turning left into another world.  Kilometer after kilometer, cheek to jowl, behind every wall, lean-to, and scrap of fencing were acres and acres of plastic recycling sorting areas, piled high in all varieties and bundled nearly to the sky.  Workers swarmed among the mess, sorting items, stacking with the claw hooks associated in another time with dock hands, and piling all of these items onto carts, bicycles, and trucks.  Here there would be a 30 foot high stack of plastic car fenders, there would be a small mountain of old plastic sandals or shoe soles, and everywhere plastic bags, electronic items, TV set covers, and the like.  Take all of this and multiply for miles!  It was breathtaking in every way.  Workers pointed out to us the slums not far away where 4000 wastepickers lived nearby who worked in the sorting and stacking.

P1010024For 90 minutes we never stopped walking in a giant circle that took us from several kilometers from the end of the Mundka line back  and around to the previous subway stop, and as much as we had seen, we hardly touched the surface of this huge plastic recycling hub.  This was not an area where brokers sad with old scales, but where there were regular scales which weighed entire truck loads of plastic goods as they came in and out.  The plastics would only be interrupted by street vendors serving lunch on the sidewalks to the workers or shopkeepers nestled between plastic yards selling their wares.

We were oddities.  Taking pictures here and there and talking to workers and brokers seemed strange to them.  ThisP1010017 was a separate world and we were visitors from the other planet where the goods began their route.  All of what we saw though was simple a stage of the process.  Once assembled and sorted here, then sold and stacked, these trucks were headed to the plants that would reprocess the plastics into new products.  We didn’t go there this trip, but we were confident that wherever the plastic was heading, it would be back here again some day.

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