There’s treasure in the trash

 There’s treasure in the trash

It’s going to take time before humankind course-corrects its relationship with plastic. So what can we do with our piles of plastic waste in the meantime? Here’s some inspiration on how waste can be directed towards social good, from The Litterboom Project’s Innovation Hub.

Since its invention in the ‘50s, plastic has revolutionised healthcare (syringes, heart valves, tubing), safety (helmets, seatbelts, airbags), and our everyday comfort (insulating material, stretchy clothes).

The less relatively expensive it has become, the more we’ve migrated to plastic; and we are now beginning to understand the consequences of humankind becoming dangerously careless with this useful material. Don’t glaze over as we share these stats from the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep). Around the world:

  • one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute;
  • five trillion plastic bags a year are used once before being discarded.

In total, half of all plastic produced is intended for single use. It is these avoidable single-use plastics – most bottles, most plastic bags – that are at the heart of the plastic pollution problem.

The damage is amplified when plastic waste gets into the ocean. As it decomposes, microplastics – particles less than 5mm in diameter – break away. These particles are impossible to retrieve, and look rather like food to small marine creatures, who may ingest them. The Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation’s Turtle Rescue programme testifies that when stranded turtle hatchlings are brought into the hospital to be closely monitored for a minimum two-week critical care period, an average of nine pieces of plastic are eliminated from their tiny digestive systems. Plastic wreaks havoc in the marine food chain before making its way up into the human food chain.

Most (±80%) of the plastic that ends up in our waterways and oceans originates on land. It makes sense, therefore, as we try to solve the plastics problem, that one of our primary focus areas is stopping plastic waste from drifting down rivers to beaches and the sea.

Enter The Litterboom Project (TLP), initiated in 2017 as an NPO by social entrepreneur Cameron Service as an intuitive and low-tech solution: booms floated across rivers intercept plastic as it makes its way downstream. Along with other waste that backs up behind the boom, this plastic is removed by what TLP calls River Wardens and sorted. Anything that can be, is taken to recycling centres.

Upstream removal of plastic is one intervention among a host, which necessarily includes education, innovation, and engagement in improved waste collection – collaboration between public and private sectors, including plastic producers, is fundamental to winning this one. But on its own, it’s a remarkably effective initiative: with litterbooms in place in 10 river locations (eight in KZN and two in the Western Cape), TLP claims to have intercepted in excess of half a million tons of plastic waste.

While the litterboom itself has won our hearts in the past six years, it was TLP’s 2023 innovation initiative that captured the imagination of the judges and led to it winning SOLVE’s inaugural Plastic Innovation and Circularity Challenge.

We cannot recycle the plastics problem away, and it is going to take time to shift producers and society into a significantly different relationship with plastic. In the full understanding that we are going to be stuck with piles of plastic waste for the forseeable future, TLP therefore set up an Innovation Hub as a home for the emerging entrepreneurs in the communities with which they work. In the Innovation Hub programme, these Wastepreneurs go through an intensive process which is intended, ultimately, to support them to create products that increase the value of plastic streams. These innovations turn plastics – including, perhaps, forms of plastic that cannot be recycled – into a commercially viable way to support collectors. Products that emerge from the programme, should they find commercial traction, also potentially seed SMMEs which provide financial independence for the wastepreneur. Watch the quick video here for more of an overview.

“We don’t believe in a few people doing things perfectly, but rather everyone making an effort imperfectly.” – Cameron Service

It’s an initiative that fully reflects the duality of our Challenge: how might we address the issue of problem plastics in a way that leverages the inherent innovativeness and provides material value to individuals and communities?

The Challenge was launched in 2022 in association with the UK-South Africa Tech Hub, an initiative of the UK Government, and OceanHub Africa, an accelerator for ocean-minded businesses. For more about the Challenge, click here.

It’s early days for the TLP Innovation Hub, but some security has been assured by funding from Mr Price Foundation and CHEP who together have guaranteed TLP’s Innovation Hub rental commitments for three years. The prize money from the SOLVE challenge supported TLP to kit out the Innovation Hub with the necessary technology, which includes a shredder, an extruding machine, and moulds. The first Wastepreneurs have now graduated; and along the way, the Hub’s first commercial product made from recycled plastic – a pot plant stake – was launched in Mr Price Home stores to modest success. The learnings from this will go forward into the thinking that informs future Wastepreneur candidates.

The next cohort of these started on August 1. Hanno Langenhoven, who heads up the Innovation Hub, confirms that in part the curriculum has to be emergent as needs emerge, but it’s clear the Wastepreneurs are in for a ride: they’re in training in the classroom or lab four to five hours a day, three to four days a week. Ultimately, they will spend two days a week in the classroom, two days in the lab, and one day a week back in their community.

It is hard to overstate the value of this kind of intensive engagement. South African’s unemployment figures – upwards of 42% by the expanded definition, and heading over 60% among youth – is a daily tragedy, and a threat to the fabric of society. Unemployed people do whatever they can to get by. Waves of opportunistic thievery tell one of the stories that flows from this. The army of bin pickers in every town in South Africa tell another. And the flourishing informal economy  – a vast network including survivalist entrepreneurs – tells yet another.

For survivalists, being an entrepreneur is born of necessity. It’s not their dream to own a business, to be their own boss, to build something. Given the option of hustling as an entrepreneur or taking up a job in the formal sector, the overwhelming majority would opt for a regular paycheck, even if part of them balks at a five- or six-day-a-week commute and grind. And so along with TLP, we celebrate the fact that both graduates of the Innovation Hub’s first programme have used the skills they gained to find jobs in the formal sector.

Technical skills are invaluable. But it’s the other skills that can make all the difference: knowing how to show up, learning that one is able to persevere in the face of challenges; developing trust in one’s own imagination and skills. SOLVE and its partners deeply admire the work of TLP, in all its manifestations, and are proud of our association.