Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A rubbish post

I was challenged by Karen at The Rubbish Diet to write about rubbish in Zambia. By which she meant trash and garbage, rather than things that went wrong (of which there were many…) She is running an 8 week long campaign to reduce the amount we put in our bins. I am in awe of her achievements and do wonder how I'm going to reduce my own garbage. Anyway, after a week of Zambian blogging, I thought I would hijack Writing Wednesday with some of my experiences.

I lived in the capital, Lusaka, for 4 years. You might think that in a developing country the concept of recycling would be lost completely, and that there would be waste and litter everywhere. In practice, I think that is completely wrong. I do not recall any great quantity of litter around the streets, unless you went into the more densely populated areas and their markets. My suspicion, however, is that even there it didn’t last longer than the day. Where there is poverty, there is desperation, and anything that could be gleaned for sale, for food or for self-preservation would be.

As for recycling, in some ways they had a better system than we do here. In Africa, nothing goes to waste. I am convinced that before any of our black bags went out for the binmen (and yes – there was a regular collection!) the entire contents were ransacked for anything that might be of value or use to the maids or garden boys.  Once it reached the dump, I am sure there were even poorer people clambering all over to retrieve the remnants. This brings images of Slumdog millionaire to mind, and is not really something to be proud of. Nevertheless, it minimises waste.

As with anything, if there is limited supply then little is wasted. Zambia is a landlocked country, so everything had to be either flown in or brought on lorries through Zimbabwe (usually). Heavy items, such as paper, were disproportionately expensive. Whilst there was no formal recycling of paper, it was used with minimal waste. We recycled the free ‘Game’ magazine as wrapping paper… though I think this made us cheapskates, not eco warriors!

The best recycling of all – and far better, I believe, than anything we do in the UK – was the recycling of soft drinks. It was possible to buy them in cans, but you paid handsomely for that privilege. And then you had to throw the can away: here there was no recycling of tin. But most long-term residents didn’t do this. Instead they bought a glass bottle of coke (or fanta or sprite: those were our only choices, although diet coke arrived before we left), paying a deposit for the bottle and, when drunk, took it back for replacement. The deposit rolled over ad infinitum; the glass bottles were reused; the soft drinks were cheap. Usually we did this by the crate load but many locals did it by individual bottle. To my mind this is far better recycling than our copious use of plastic (yeuch!) and cans.

In some ways, the simple life gives natural waste reduction. If you can’t afford disposable nappies, you can never contaminate a landfill site with them as waste. If you can’t afford new clothes, you will always be in the market for hand-me-downs and second-hand offerings.

I was privileged to be connected to the Chikumbuso Womens & Orphans Project. As with all great ideas, it started with a simple thought: what if...? What if we were able to reuse all the carrier bags we have (freely handed out by local supermarkets and shops, but of low quality and non-biodegradable) that go to waste? What if it was possible to crochet plastic bags into …well, bags! 

Started by a small group of widows in the Ngombe region of Lusaka, a whole trade and industry has developed. Carrier bags are cut up and then crocheted to make bags which are then sold in the local market. The resource is, for the most part, free (donated in strategically placed bins, such as at international schools!). The women earn a living from their production; a percentage is kept for community projects. And – importantly – the plastic bags are recycled, reused and not creating uncompostable waste.

In Zambia, recycling can come in many forms. Glasses from wine bottles:

Chairs from bottle tops:

(Do you see the snake of bottle-tops on the table?)

The cans and papers are also used to create household items to sell, such as lampstands:

The best of ingenuity has to go to these gentlemen: a new style of horse and cart!

In Africa, nothing goes to waste.

If anyone in the UK is interested, I have a few bags available for sale for the Chikumbuso Women and Orphans Project: please DM me on twitter: @c_withenay


The Dotterel said...

What a fascinating post! As one doing Karen's rubbish diet I'm both shamed and inspired by what I've just read... as well as fascinated.

Catharine Withenay said...

Thanks, Tim. It was a wonderful challenge to write this post and made me ache to be there! Zambia is a wonderful country and the experience of living in the developing world colours everything I do, putting much of our Western griping into perspective.

(But I'd still like an iPad...!)

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