Accidental recycling in Malawi

Blantyre craftsman and merchant, Isaac Stone, begins his work for the day by carving into a used tire. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Give Isaac Stone 500 kwacha, a tire, and two hours, and he’ll hand you back a pair of sandals.

At just 21-years-old, Stone has already been making footwear for nearly a decade. Born and raised in Blantyre, a city of some 732,000 people (2008), Stone didn’t always have to compete for kwacha in the market. He once went to school and had a mother and father who looked after him. But his mother passed away and his father disappeared. And so, when he was 12, Stone was forced to drop out of school and fend for himself.

Born street smart, he quickly realized that his best bet at survival was to learn a trade – to the carving knife was it.

I chatted with Stone as he made his day’s first pair of shoes.

His morning starts at 7:00 a.m., at which time he catches a minibus out to Limbe –a trade hub on the outskirts of Blantyre– where he can pick up a used car tire for 250 MWK (about $1.60 CAD). Stone then travels back to central Blantyre where, from 9-5, he can be found working behind a makeshift wooden stall, cutting away at rubber.

”I like working with my hands,” he told me. “It brings me money for food. Just enough for a place to stay.”

Stone doesn’t know it, but his small sandal business is part of something very big: Malawi’s efforts to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.

The MDGs can broadly be defined as a set of development goals aimed at significantly reducing poverty, hunger, and disease, by 2015. Target seven reads: “integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources.”

Stone explained that it had never occurred to him that what he was doing was a form of recycling – and more than that, I offered, he was saving the tires from the garbage fires that so-often sour the city’s air.

”It’s a business,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I do it because I can make some money. But if it is good for the air, that is okay too.”

Karen Price, a project manager for Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust, explains that in a country as poor as Malawi, while many posses an awareness of environmental issues, it is difficult to get communities thinking about litter.

“I think there is general awareness of the environment, but when it comes to something like recycling, there is much more that could be done,” she said.

Local merchants watch over a bottle recycling depot in Blantyre's downtown market. Photo by Travis Lupick.

“It’s about the understanding of what waste is,” Price went on to explain. “There is not that added value of something as waste –that something can turn into waste or be recycled to become another product that can be reused.”

Stone and his tires are not the only accidental recycling operation running in Blantyre’s downtown market. In fact, in nearly every direction, people have repurposed and are reusing objects of every sort in countless imaginative ways.

And it’s a good thing, too, for Blantyre’s one-and-only garbage depot is filling up fast.

Down the hill from Stone, Grant Kenneth, another young entrepreneur, sits in the market with a small group of associates. Surrounding the men are mountains of empty plastic and glass bottles of every size, shape, and colour one can imagine.

”People bring them here,” Kenneth told me. “We pay three kwacha, five kwacha, 10 kwacha, and 15 kwacha, depending on the size.”

Kenneth or one of his colleagues will take the dirty bottles they receive, strip them of their labels, clean them, and, sometimes, refashion their shape to fit a specific purpose. And then they’ll resell the bottles at a slightly higher rate than the one for which they were purchased.

“It’s a job,” Kenneth said to me, echoing Stone’s remarks. “I guess it is good for the environment because otherwise, the people would be throwing it away. But it is just a job.”

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