By Stanley Kwenda, IPS News August 1, 2012
Tomson Chikowero was ashamed of his job. He did not want anyone finding out what he did to earn a living, so he used to wake up early every morning and leave his home in Hatfield, a residential suburb in Zimbabwe’s capital city Harare, under the cover of darkness.
And he would return only after sunset when no one could see him carrying the bags of plastic bottles that he collected from people’s trash that day.
For the middle-class Chikowero, who was formerly employed as a builder but lost his job in 2010, collecting plastic and cardboard boxes from people’s trash to resell was embarrassing at first. But now he has become one of a handful of unlikely climate change ambassadors here.
Climate change has already had an impact on the country, with the Meteorological Service Department confirming that rainfall here has declined, while temperatures have risen in the past few years. It will, according to a study released on Mar. 21 titled Strengthening national capacity for climate change programme in Zimbabwe, place the country’s food security and economic growth at risk.
However, trash has a role to play in climate change mitigation in this southern African nation. A 2010 publication by the United Nations Environment Programme titled Waste and Climate Change said: “after waste prevention, recycling has been shown to result in the highest climate benefit compared to other waste management approaches. This appears to be the case … also in developing countries.”
Barnabas Mawire, the country director for Environment Africa, an environmental NGO, agreed that recycling is important for Zimbabwe.
“Recycling helps climate change (mitigation) a great deal…If industries recycle plastic bottles and scrap materials they will not use the same amount of energy they would use if they were making plastic or metal from scratch. If they recycle, they would use less raw materials and energy and that has been proven to reduce the carbon footprint,” he told IPS.
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) factsheet on recycling stated that “recycling plastics uses only roughly 10 percent of the energy it takes to make a pound of plastic from virgin materials.”
While there are no estimates on how much Zimbabwe would save in greenhouse gas emissions, recycling in the United Kingdom currently saves more than 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, the annual emissions of 177,879 passenger vehicles.
But many Zimbabweans are not aware of climate change or mitigation efforts. This southern African country has no climate change policy, though it is in the process of formulating one with the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.
So when Chikowero first started collecting trash he, along with the hundreds of others who sort through people’s trash to collect plastic and cardboard boxes for resale, merely did it to earn a living in a country with an unemployment rate of 70 percent. A kilogramme of plastic can be sold for between seven and 10 dollars.
While there are no official figures on how many people earn a living from this, the sight of people collecting trash from Harare’s suburbs is a common one. Plastic buyers at the Mbare Musika market in Harare told IPS that they deal with over 200 garbage collectors every day.
The market is the biggest in the city, and has an organised area for buyers of recyclable material. In addition, Mukundi Plastics, a packaging and recycling company in Harare’s industrial area, said that they receive deliveries from about 100 people a day.
Recycling is important to the country. According to the Environmental Management Authority, a government body set up to protect environmental services and goods, Zimbabwe is running out of landfill sites.
In addition, the Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa 2011 said that Zimbabwean households generate solid waste amounting to 2.7 kg per day, of which only 47 percent is biodegradable. Authorities often resort to burning trash as a way of disposing it, a practice considered harmful to the environment.
Recycling is a great way to combat this.
Chikowero first learnt about climate change and how recycling can reduce carbon emissions when a buyer mentioned it to him and other trash collectors as a way of encouraging them to continue their work.
“We were just doing this for the money when we started, and I wondered why people are interested in buying plastic bottles and cardboard boxes, until we were told what happens once the plastic is bought from us,” Chikowero said. It is recycled by both local and international companies for the manufacture of soft drink bottles and cereal boxes.
He also did not realise that by encouraging domestic workers in the homes he collected trash from to separate paper from plastic, he was helping Zimbabwe with climate change mitigation.
According to the study Strengthening national capacity for climate change programme in Zimbabwe, commissioned by the government and U.N. agencies, the nation lacks the capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
“I asked them to separate plastic bottles from the waste that they put in their rubbish bins. At first they were hostile to the idea, but with time when they became familiar with me and understood why I was asking them to do so, it became easy,” said Chikowero.
The more people embraced the idea, the easier his job became. And he is now able to collect larger amounts of plastic in less time, thereby earning more money.
Currently he collects plastic from 50 blocks of residential flats in Harare’s city centre and the outlying areas of Eastlea.
The caretakers of these flats are also fast becoming part of his sphere of influence. “They help me a lot and that makes my job easy,” said Chikowero as he pointed to a notice by the caretaker encouraging residents to separate their paper and plastic from the rest of their waste on a wall at the St. Tropez Flats in Eastlea.
Here, housemaids Idah Ndadziyira and Tatenda Munjoma told IPS that three other plastic collectors passed through the building on a regular basis, and that they, like Chikowero, taught them about climate change and the importance of recycling.
“I did not know what it was about. In fact I thought it could only happen in other countries and not in Zimbabwe until the plastic collectors educated me about it… I am now sharing the information with other people,” Ndadziyira told IPS.
Chikowero has now gotten every third house in the Eastlea suburb to recycle their plastic, and other households are steadily catching up.
“It’s now a way of life. That’s why this movement is growing,” said Chikowero.
Even the country’s National Climate Change Committee coordinator, Dr. Toddy Ngara, acknowledged the efforts of trash collectors like Chikowero.
“Their work is commendable, they have helped a lot in cleaning our cities and are now helping to clean the environment with their contribution to the recycling industry,” Ngara told IPS.
The government’s climate adaptation committee has promised to consult and use them as ambassadors in developing a national climate change strategy.
The director of environment at the Ministry of Environment, Irvin Kunene, said at a climate change policy meeting in Harare in early May that “all stakeholders including trash collectors will be consulted in crafting the country’s national climate change policy.”
And it has made Chikowero proud of his job.
“Now, I am no longer ashamed,” he told IPS.