Assignment 3: Recycling, the burden of the rich

June 9, 2008 - Soweto, South Africa

Excuse me Francis, what are you talking about?  Aren't you one of those "greenies."  You know, the kind that is always touting environmentalism, and such?  Didn't you just create a curriculum for a Nature Program?  Aren't you designing children's programs around sustainability?  How could you even consider saying something like that!

Yes, yes and yes.


You see, in Johannesburg, a recycling program does exist - somewhere.  I did see recycling signs once in a while.  I even saw a bin to put things in.  But just because something exists, doesn't mean it is working efficiently or effectively.  [Think Government for that matter.]  You see, we the residents of the mighty West have come up with amazing programs to deal with our overzealous consumption.  We have created this amazing concept of recycling.  The ability to turn wasteful products into more products that will eventually make it to the landfill.

Cynical are we?

Yes I am.  I believe that the problem is not recycling the in the first place, it's the creation of long lasting never to be biodegradable products to begin with.  Remember our saying goes, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  Note the order.  The order is important.

In Joburg, you can recycle.  You can gather up all your recyclables, paper, cans and plastics bottles and bring them yourself to the recycling centre.  There we go, you wanted to know about a recycling program, there it is.   Here, the recycling program is completely dependent on the individual user to take their waste to a centre to have it disposed of properly.

What about the recycling guys?

Well, glass bottles can be returned for money.  And scraps of metal are precious.  The gathering of such materials goes to central waste management facility.  The recycling guys fly by and grab whatever recycling is left.  Really, there are very few facilities that offer recycling.  The zoo has separate bins for everything, but few other places even acknowledge it.  But I digress.

The precious materials are so sought after by the poor that many have risked their lives to get at them.  How?  They rush the truck and grab as many of the goods as they can before the compactor turns it into a solid brick of nothingness.  The acute poverty has many people living in the landfills and making some sort of living off of the 'goods' deposited there.

When a person can barely afford to have bread, how could they even consider to spend the time and energy to take their 'recyclables' across the city to special centres?  Also, after my trip through Soweto, I saw some of the harshest living standards in ages.  No water and no electricity, this means that priorities are realigned.

Reusing is a way of life.  Sheet metal scraps are roofs.  Bottles are used until broken.  People make due with whatever they have.  People have to care deeply for the land they live on.  But when basic survival is at hand, thinking about the future is less and less important.  Most stoves and lamps here are lit by paraffin.  It burns so people can cook and stay warm.  Yes, this is Africa, but the winters are bitter cold when you live under tin and sheets.  Three Degrees is no big deal in Canada, because we have insulation and central heating.  Three degrees in South Africa is uncomfortably cold.

To break down the 3R's again:

Reduce: The environment is pretty much reduced to a no holds barred, tragedy of the commons type of situation.  Without support for the poor, the idea of recycling and environmentalism is lost.

Reuse - The thought of of environmentalism is re-used over and over in school.  The kids know all about waste management and sustainability.  The adults just can't live it.

Recycle: Yes, the problems of waste are re-cycled over and over through lack of initiative and public concern.

Thus, recycling becomes a burden on those who can afford to care.  Those that aren't breaking they backs in harsh poor paying labour sun up to sun down can think about buying green.  Biodegradable materials, organic, green = expensive.  Basic living has been a case for GMO, cheap products and any sort of sustenance.  You cannot be picky about what you get  to buy.  You buy what you can buy.  So really, when we as mighty consumers take and take and take, we need to have some sort of give.  We have resulted in giving back by recycling.  It makes us feel better so we can sleep at night.

Imagine the conversation in Toronto if someone announced boldly that recycling was a fraud.  People would be up in arms about environmentalism!  Here, people have looked at me sideways when I asked for a recycling bin.  After all, in this system, it all really ends up in the same place anyway.

But I am happy to write that there are small changes happening.  The kids know about the problems with waste management.  They know that wetlands are important.  They know all about energy conservation.  They know about many of the problems that irresponsible living cause.  So, one step at a time.  I'll continue to design fun workshops for the children to engage in environmental issues.  The kids will continue to play.  And along the way, this play will become knowledge.  And hopefully, these kids will play nice with the environment they live in as well.

[Edit Monday June 23 4:34PM]

On the bus ride back from Durban, I saw a really neat looking haze / mist coming from the bottom of a valley.  I thought, "what a nice looking mist."  It was at a sunset and I thought that it was something spectacular.  But when I got closer, I realised that the mist was actually smog.  All those little huts have turned on their stoves.  They were just trying to stay warm/cook.    Then I realised that the wind couldn't push the smog away.  Those people were living with a horrid thick layer of smog right above them.  It was so thick that it was visible to the naked eye.  It was then that I realised how bad pollution was for those living in such harsh conditions.

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June 24, 2008
Francis, your insight into the environmental issues in Joburg really get me thinking about how important it is to educate children on ALL of the Rs, not just recycling. It sounds like you are the right person to be working in the Science Centre! You'll have to share your lesson plans with me when we get back, because I know I have a lot to learn myself!
August 13, 2008
Wow...this is a really insightfull post on really expressing a lot of feelings I have on the topic (and on vegetarianim), that I am afraid to put into words because i feel like people will jump all over me if I do...thanks so much for writing it..
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