This blog first appeared on the Transition Crouch End Blogspot in November 2010 before a Skills Share event at Tottenham Chances, London
Waste - the New Weed
We're going to be knitting plastic bags on Sunday!
Some frightening facts about Plastic
Source: AwareKnits (Howel and Armstrong, 2009)
- Worldwide, plastic bag consumption = 1 million bags per minute
- Approximately 7 billion pounds of plastic trash floats about 500 nautical miles of the Californian coast, creating its own little island of filth.
- An estimated 12 million barrels of oil are required to feed America's hundred-billion- plastic-bags-a-year fix.
- Plastic bags are not biodegradable. It takes a thousand years for one plastic bag to break down.
- Every year, hundreds of thousands of sea animals die from ingesting plastic bags mistaken for food.
So plastic bags are bad.
But work done by the NGO Kare4Kenya in Kawangware, one of the many slum areas of Nairobi, tells a different story. The aim was to clean up the area and use the plastic bags to make beach bags, thus creating part-time work for mothers, who were normally unemployed.
A YouTube video shows the women scouring heaps of rubbish for plastic bags to empty, sort and clean, not an easy task as you can see from the pictures. (Due to the lack of communal toilets, many of these bags are likely to have contained human waste.) Yet at the end these nasty, manky pieces are transformed into stunning crocheted hats and bags.
When the women go to the rubbish dump, are they scavenging or foraging? Is their life so despicable, this unseemly, dirty activity is their only way of living? Or it might just be that they actively value what is so easily discarded; it is a free resource which actually earns them money.
Perhaps it is the placing of the plastic that is the problem. In organic gardening, a weed is just 'a plant in the wrong place.' The same can be said of waste. No one would want to rifle a rubbish tip. Yet plastic bags and bottles carefully stashed for creative ventures are a different matter.
And with diminishing oil resources, plastic may well become a precious commodity. So as in the recent Transition Crouch End blogspot about chutney, it all comes down to a question of value. To return to the women of Africa, that value can be monetary. In our society, knitting plastic gives people a chance to acquire new skills, using material that is essentially expendable. Mistakes don't count and the experience is invaluable.
We may revile a global inequality that means people have to resort to rubbish for a living: while we play with plastic, they work. Nevertheless their ingenuity and resourcefulness reminds us that 'waste' is a value-laden term. It is a label that can be easily soaked off.