We Must See Waste as a Resource in Global Efforts to Eliminate Poverty| Funto Boroffice

We know that old ways of thinking and doing won’t solve today’s problems — let alone tomorrow’s. It’s not hard to see, in the face of multiple, interconnected crises, that business as usual is no longer a smart option. And yet, too many of us still struggle to take those bold leaps in our thinking. We battle to look at enduring challenges in unconventional ways.

For a community that reveres innovation and disruption, we can be short-sighted when it comes to some issues. Waste is one of them. It rarely makes headlines, but most of us know it’s a mounting problem, the world over. Globally, we produce an astonishing 2.01 billion tons of waste every year. The harm that this much waste causes our health and environment is already significant. Now consider that we’re expected to reach 3.40 billion tons by 2050.

What’s more, our landfills contain a shocking amount of recyclable plastic. It’s estimated that 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. If nothing changes, we’re on track to have 12 billion tons of plastic sitting in our landfills by 2050.

Advances in technology and shifts in cultural norms — like an awareness and embrace of recycling in many countries — are making a positive difference. But really, we’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to what’s needed, and what’s possible, in the world of waste. Until more of us can see this problem for its potential to help us solve urgent socio-economic and environmental crises, we’ll remain stuck in an increasingly hazardous status quo.

Luckily there’s good news. Right at this moment, there are imaginative leaders pushing ahead with enterprising, radical ideas — linking waste management solutions to poverty reduction, gender equality, access to finance, housing, education and more. It’s time we follow their lead and take a whole systems approach to waste.

In large cities across India, Brazil and Nigeria, to name a few, cooperatives and social businesses have turned old thinking on its head and successfully transformed recyclable waste into currency for disadvantaged groups: You can trade with it, you can sell it, you can even use it to pay school tuition or secure legal representation.

Vulnerable populations, like at-risk youth, unemployed women and some of the world’s 15 to 20 million informal waste pickers, are being trained and equipped to safely collect plastic waste, which is then turned into pellets, flakes or bales that are bought by companies for use in manufacturing. Workers exchange waste for cash or other benefits and recyclable waste gets diverted from landfills, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and animating the circular economy.

Reframing waste as a resource, these efforts are making a measurable, immediate difference in underserved communities, improving thousands of lives through dignified work. Most important of all, organizations like Hasiru Dala in Bangalore or COOPIDEAL in Rio de Janeiro are succeeding because they’re locally-designed and led, which means messaging resonates and programs deliver practical benefits that cater directly to users’ needs. These initiatives are powerful ways to localize the Sustainable Development Goals, effectively adapting global aims to unique contexts.

At Chanja Datti, the social enterprise I founded and run in Abuja, we develop campaigns that respond to the distinct challenges of Northern Nigeria, including high rates of out-of-school children and unbanked women.

Of the 10.5 million out-of-school kids in Nigeria, 60% live in Northern Nigeria. We started BottlesForBooks to help reverse this trend, and have since sent 800 children to school, covering their school fees in exchange for PET bottles collected by students themselves. We also formed a financial inclusion program that’s helped more than 250 unbanked women open their first savings account through our Cash4Trash campaign and a partnership with Jaiz Bank.

We’re finding ways to turn waste into wealth for neglected groups, perhaps none more excluded than waste pickers themselves. Their work is grueling and hazardous, and many live in settlements at dump sites. These men, women and children are the unsung heroes of waste management, responsible for up to 90% of recycling in countries like Brazil and South Africa.

It’s critical that we see them as integral partners in global development efforts, and make every effort to formalize their role in society. Brazil provides a legal model we can learn from; they’ve classified waste picking as an official occupation and formally integrated waste pickers into municipal waste management. With the benefit of protections and regulations, millions in this marginalized group can raise their standard of living.

In a world that’s still reeling from COVID-19, we must see waste as a resource in recovery efforts. When it comes to job creation alone, we know that recycling creates 70 times as many jobs as using landfills or incinerators. It’s time for the international development community to catch up to what’s happening on the ground. Holistic, scalable solutions exist. Let’s come together and get to work.

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Vital Voices

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Invest in Women. Improve the World. | Vital Voices invests in women leaders who are solving the world’s greatest challenges.

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