Khushma works in a recycling business. PlanetCare recycles cardboard, paper and plastic. She spends much of her time educating children in good eco practice. It’s about changing behavior, not throwing money at the problem.
Khushma Mehta, Durban
I am very fortunate: I am from South Africa, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. However, our pristine country, like so many others, is blighted by what feels like a never-ending stream of litter. Ever since I was young, I’ve always felt horrified at the casual way people around me litter.
One of my key memories from my childhood was an anti-litter campaign with Zibi the Ostrich. ‘Zap it in the Zibi can’. Although initially I went on to work in finance, I credit a bright yellow ostrich with white sneakers for igniting my love for the environment.
As an at-home mom with 2 beautiful girls, I decided to take the plunge, change career direction and pursue my passion. So I joined a recycling company. In hindsight however, I didn’t fully appreciate how brutal the recycling market can be. This, together with juggling motherhood, was pretty challenging.
But I was still determined to work in this field. Life and circumstances kept pointing me in this direction, and I joined PlanetCare Waste Management, a recycling facility 2 years ago. PlanetCare collects cardboard, paper and plastic (with some cans and glass thrown in), sorts it into its relevant categories and sells it on. We are basically a middleman. At our site, we separate waste and bale it. We sell our cardboard to paper mills, and our white paper to tissue mills. Plastics go to various end users who clean and pelletize them into tiny pellets for reusing into making new plastic products.
South Africa has an informal recycling sector of approximately 100,000 people. It’s a form of survival for thousands of families. It is a little known fact but South Africa has one of the best cardboard recycling rates in the world. People will collect recyclables out of people’s trash, business properties, restaurants, rubbish dumps etc, anywhere they can find something that is worth money. They then sell this on to a buyback centre.
China’s closed doors
In the past, we, together with many other recycling companies globally, exported our plastic to China. Last year, China closed its doors to the world’s dirty recyclables (plastic with residue, mixed grades of plastic that are not recyclable, etc.). That’s left 111 million tons of garbage globally with nowhere to go. This has had a tremendous global effect with many first world countries having to dump recyclables collected (especially plastic) to landfill.
This is a problem of epic proportions. Countries have grown accustomed to not thinking about their trash once it’s removed from their backyards. I personally feel that even though many countries are staggering under the weight of their waste, it has brought about much-needed awareness about recycling. Surely a good thing! ‘Single use’ was one of the most-used phrases of 2018 and we can already see how people and companies are beginning to change their behavior. That could be replacing plastic straws or using re-usable coffee cups.
As much as I have followed my passion it has come with many challenges. Running a recycling business in today’s economic climate is extremely tough. We have high fuel costs, high labour costs (collecting and sorting recyclables is very labour-intensive), and low returns on recyclables. The recycling market works on weight and as you can imagine, a truck full of empty water bottles doesn’t weigh much. South Africa is a country with great wealth disparity. Due to high unemployment rates and a high level of crime, theft is quite a problem in our industry. A bale of cardboard easily ‘falls off the back of a truck’, then someone else collects and sells it.
The key to making an impact is increasing awareness of recycling, and how we as individuals can be the change. So, I typically work on the social media side of things and talk at schools. I believe that where younger children learn about the importance of recycling and also the choices they can make about their consumption, the more part of daily life it will become for them. Changing behavior at all levels of society is the only way we can make a difference. Throwing money at the problem is not the answer.
Rwanda’s success at recycling
One of my most memorable trips that had a marked effect on me was to Rwanda. A country torn apart by genocide less than a generation ago, now practices the spirit of Umuganda,‘contribution by the community’. This is similar to the South African concept of Ubuntu.
Rwanda has harnessed the idea of building cohesive national identity through communal projects. One of their landmark projects is a community clean up where one day each month, all citizens aged between 18-65 clean up their city. Together with a total ban on plastic bags, Kigali is now one of the cleanest cities in the world. Their pride in their country along with their sense of innovation in finding substitutes for packaging made me realize that we South Africans have no excuse.
On my social media postings I focus on mindful consumerism: on not purchasing items that will soon end up in a landfill. I believe in the 5 R’s of sustainability: reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse and rot. It’s amazing how much we can refuse. I have stopped accepting medals in running and cycling races, small samples, free giveaways, excess packaging etc.
What are Eco Bricks?
A wonderful innovation; non-recyclable plastic packaging waste is compacted into a 2 liter soda bottle. These are a substitute for bricks in various building projects. They can also make pieces of furniture and art.
Attending philosophy has definitely harmonized my greater purpose to what I do. I am mindful about my footprint on the planet and truly believe that every action counts. ‘What’s one straw?’ – said 8 billion people. We can act with consciousness and awareness – it’s about refining our actions; this resonates with what I am learning at the School of Philosophy.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘My life is my message’. I strive to uphold this as much as possible. I am working towards a zero-waste lifestyle. Vegetable waste gets fed to my worms and turned into compost, and all my recyclables get taken to Planetcare. I use ecobricks for my non-recyclable plastic packaging such as chocolate wrappers and crisp packets.
As I become more aware of my consumption, I see how this is impacting my two daughters. At restaurants they now ask for drinks with no straws for example. Little changes like these from a lot of people will create a wave of change.
Where are we going?
My vision for the future is that we as mankind, realizing that we have reached a tipping point, are able to reverse our actions and come up with creative and innovative methods of solving our packaging requirements. The solutions are out there, waiting to be discovered and invented. We are living in an age of artificial intelligence and innovation on an exponential scale. I’d like to look at turning all these challenges facing us into opportunities.
Have a look at PlanetCare’s website: http://www.planetcare.co.za