Liberian women lead the way in the fight against plastic pollution
For six years, Martha Sherman, a widow, struggled with chronic pain as a result of damaged tissues in her body. Since then life has been hard for her as she lost her business because all the money was spent on her treatment.
But thanks to a recycling initiative in Monrovia, Greener Inc, which turns plastic waste into tiles, she can smile again and provide for her family.
“I go to dumps or sometimes send my grandchildren to collect the plastics and then take them to the business to sell,” said Sherman, 57, who is also a grandmother of three.
Plastic waste is a growing scourge in Monrovia. Streets and alleys are flooded with plastic, especially plastic water bags, as city authorities struggle to deal with the situation. Experts say the best way to fight plastic pollution is to recycle and limit production.
“Plastic pollution in Liberia is bad. People throw plastic everywhere. They remain in the environment for 100 years. Plastic needs to be contained and recycled,” says Dr. Eugene Shannon, former minister of mines and energy, now president of the Natural Resources Development Corporation.
Plastics make up 14.2% of Monrovia’s waste, according to Research portal, a network of scientists and researchers based in Germany. With limited knowledge of the impact of plastic waste on the environment, many communities burn or bury their waste. The smoke emanating from the plastic is released into the atmosphere, causing air pollution.
As the world battles climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, women are most likely to suffer unemployment, flooding, abuse and domestic violence, experts warn these impacts could worsen.
The African Green Stimulus Program addresses waste management as one of its elements. It emphasizes that chemicals and waste management will dramatically improve the way goods and services are produced, consumed, reduce and create jobs that will empower women, engage young people and help reduce pollution.
The young recycling company has now created jobs for Sherman and many women in Monrovia by buying the plastic waste they collect.
Miatta Karr became unemployed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She was a domestic worker.
With the establishment of the business, Karr immediately joined other women in the community to pick up trash and sell it to the business.
“Just by picking up plastics from regular landfills, I earn between 30 and 40 dollars a week. People employed in offices do not earn that amount,” said Janet Turay, another woman who is also involved in collecting plastic waste in Monrovia.
But this is not an easy task for many. Picking up garbage from landfills is not a task that many people would prefer.
“People can laugh at me when they see me picking up trash. They call me crazy, but I don’t care as long as I get paid,” says Teta Tweh, a mother of four.
When Kemah Johnson, 57, saw the money she was making from sales, she quickly mobilized other unemployed women in her community to join the business and they too are benefiting.
Aside from the money they earn from garbage collection, litter has gone down in their community and they no longer experience flooding from plastic blocking the drains.
“Although I’m making money, that doesn’t worry me. This plastic picking has reduced litter in our community,” said Olivia Johnson.
According to her, the money she has earned from plastic is used to feed and clothe her children in addition to keeping them in school.
Apart from the employment that the recycling business provides for these women, the business also reduces the waste dumped into the environment. For example, more than 750 water plastic bags are used to produce a sidewalk slab and 1,250 water plastic bags are used to produce a piece of interlocking bricks.
Some of the sidewalk tile layouts are made from recycled plastic waste collected by women in Monrovia. Photo/Tina Mehnpaine/African Women in Media (AWiM)
Discarded plastic chokes waterways, blocks drains, kills fish and releases harmful chemicals into water and soil. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum states that by 2050 there will be more plastics in the oceans than fish if the current trend in plastic pollution is not reversed.
“Imagine you are in a car, rubbish being burned, your first experience is inhaling the terrible smoke,” said Dr. Lyndon G. Mabande, Registrar General at the Liberia Medical and Dental Council. “What comes out of the smoke are certain chemicals. These chemicals are very dangerous for the lungs. You think you are inhaling oxygen but, in reality, you are inhaling carbon monoxide which will affect your lungs,” he said.
World leaders and environmental experts recently came together to craft a first-of-its-kind global treaty to control plastic waste. The agreement covers the complete life cycle of plastic, from its production to its disposal.
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), described the resolution as the most important multilateral environmental agreement since the Paris Agreement, a historic agreement signed by 196 countries in 2015 which aims to limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees. Celsius.
“Today marks a triumph for planet Earth over single-use plastics,” Andersen said in a statement. “It’s an insurance policy for this generation and future generations, so they can live with plastic and not be condemned by it.”
“Plastic pollution has become an epidemic,” said Espen Barth Eide, president of the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly and Norwegian Minister for Climate and Environment, in a statement. “With today’s resolution, we are officially on the way to a cure.”
The treaty will not only reduce the amount of plastic pollution, but will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of the material since plastics are made from fossil fuels.
The government of Liberia does not have any recycling methods to combat plastic pollution. Public and private waste ends up in landfills and in the environment, causing flooding. Globally, women are more likely to experience poverty and have access to less socioeconomic power than men.
“We were able to acquire a machine that helps us shear plastic. After shearing, the plastic is melted. When it is melted, we mix it with sand to produce the pavement slabs and bricks,” said Synanna Gbollie, founder of Greener, Inc.
“We buy all types of plastics, except PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which they use for the sewage system. We did outreach in various communities. We asked people to bring the plastics so we could buy them,” he said. “We buy the plastic for L$10 per kilogram or 250 pieces. It’s a challenge because we are a self-funded start-up. Our mode of production is labor-intensive; it’s not the safest means of production, but it’s what we can afford at the moment.
Gbollie is pleased with the success of his initiative as it has reduced plastic waste and created jobs for women.
He hopes others can borrow a leaf to a cleaner and safer environment while empowering women.
This story was produced as part of the African Women in Media Program (AWiM/UNEP Africa Environment Journalism.)