By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE (IDN) – Carrying a gigantic sack full of plastics debris picked up from rubbish pits, 33-year-old Herbert Mbedzi trudges around downtown Harare, the Zimbabwean capital rummaging dustbins for some more plastic waste for resale to recyclers.
Mbedzi claims that he has never been employed in his life and has now found a reliable source of income in dumped plastic junk, which has become “like gold” to him. “I have realised that my earnings each week from selling the plastics that I collect come to around 80 dollars because I have found reliable and constant customers like local firms involved in recycling plastics products,” Mbedzi told IDN.
Mbedzi is now regularly selling the plastic he collects to local firms like Waverley Plastics and many other indigenous plastics dealers around the country. A single kilogram of plastic fetches anything between seven and 10 dollars, according to Mbedzi.
But as many desperate Zimbabweans like Mbedzi see hidden treasures in the plastic waste many here dump away, they have also unintentionally turned themselves into weapons against the impacts of climate change.
“Plastic garbage collectors are not aware of this, but by recycling plastic waste they are helping in climate change mitigation,” Barnabas Mawire, country director for Environment Africa, an environmental NGO, told IDN. “For instance, if industries recycle plastic bottles, they will not use the same amount of energy they would if they were making plastic from scratch. If they recycle, they would use less raw materials and energy.”
According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fact sheet on recycling, “recycling plastics uses only roughly 10 percent of the energy it takes to make a pound of plastic from virgin materials”.
They probably do not know it, but plastic trash collectors are apparently in sync with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13, which is about taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
Through the collection of plastic debris ranging from plastic bags, disposed containers or plastic bottles, many Zimbabweans have also turned into saviours of their own environments, according to environmental activists.
“People throw plastic waste everywhere and anywhere, but plastic waste collectors have come as a relief to the environment which is certainly at the receiving end of the plastics strewn all over our places here,” Steady Kangata, spokesperson for the Environmental Management Agency (EMA), told IDN.
EMA is Zimbabwe’s statutory body for ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources and protection of the environment.
Although plastic debris has turned into gold for many desperate and jobless Zimbabweans, environmental experts here accuse plastic products of endangering this Southern African nation’s environment.
“If not disposed of correctly, plastics can pollute water systems and harm the environment,” said Happson Chikova, a Zimbabwean independent environmental expert who holds an Honours Degree in Geography and Environmental studies from Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University.
According to Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate Change, about 600 tons of plastic are thrown away in the capital Harare every day, this while the Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa 2011 reported that Zimbabwean households accumulate solid waste amounting to 2.7 kg per day, with 47 percent of this recyclable.
EMA estimates that approximately 33,000 Zimbabweans are involved in collecting plastic waste for recycling and Chikova said that this activity has come as a lifeline for the environment.
He noted that in the process of collecting the plastic matter dotting their surroundings, people have turned into redeemers of their own environments.
“Instead of plastic waste continuing to find its way into people’s surroundings, plastic debris has been found to be of continued use in many areas like producing home-made floor polish, and this means that what other people consider to be waste has turned into a fortune to others.”
Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Change Oppah Muchinguri agrees that plastic debris collectors “have turned a real problem into profit”.
“More than half of the trash which often includes plastic waste only in Harare is left uncollected by city workers, with much of it ending up invading the city’s drainage systems, natural waterways, streets and undeveloped land,” Muchinguri told IDN.
“But mainly thanks to the plastic waste collectors, we are gradually beginning to see some positive changes as the plastic waste is fast disappearing.”