Why recycling for conservation is no waste of time

The sun was already fierce, and it had yet to hit noon. Despite the heat, the streets of Livingstone, Zambia, were alive with people. Songs filled the air, gangs of children chattered excitedly, women in bright chitenge skirts smiled and joined the teeming throng of humans.  

This was not a festival. It was a community litter pick. Along with hundreds of other community members, army personnel and volunteers, I walked the streets picking up trash. I was hot, dirty and had picked-up some very questionable items. But, far from being a chore, the moment brought a spirit of community togetherness 

For many people when they think of conservation they think of the scientist, the field workers or documentary makers. But waste management plays a crucial role. 

Previously, my contribution to recycling was to put rubbish in its respectful bins. That changed when I became an intern in South Africa, turning an old pineapple farm into a wildlife reserve.  

Pineapples are grown through plastic bags, and these bags – acres-upon-acres of them – had been dumped into a pit. They hung from trees, floated in rivers and was buried in the soil. Our task was to remove it and stop further damage.

Cleaning pineapple plastic in South Africa.


Later, I moved to Zambia where I headed-up a volunteer project for African Impact. I learned about eco bricking – a process which involves stuffing a plastic bottle with other plastic such as crisp wrappers. Not only did it clean the environment, these bricks were then used to build benches at schools, with the only costs being cement and paint.  

Education workshops and community litter-picks became the norm and showed me an alternative way of contributing to conservation.  

While many countries have recycling operationsmany First World countries ship recyclables abroad with an out of sight, out of mind attitude.  

But these countries are known for some of the highest rates of waste mismanagement with little data on where it ends-upRepeatedly it is burned in landfills. Consider then, the working conditions for those sorting the waste, who are often children. 

Therefore, recycling or repurposing, is the only solution for countries to combat the problem.   

Community litterpick with African Impact.


Know your audience  

When looking at solutions it is vital to understand the constraints of the community. In 2018, two billion people worldwide did not have their waste collectedIn Africa, a continent that produces around 70 million tonnes of waste every yearonly 10% is collected.  

Rachael Walker – jointfounder of Pure Skills – established her NGO to tackle two issues: high unemployment and low waste disposal.  

The Livingstone-based NGO offered locals new skills in making products – using recycled or upcycled material if possible – to earn an income 

“We felt that skills training shouldn’t have to be linked to an individual’s academic achievement.  Also, with little, or no, waste management, it made sense to look at waste as free resource,” Rachael said 

Rachel at Pure Skills giving a talk on waste management.

While burning trash is illegal, in practice it is rife amongst communities who have no alternative. 

According to a report from Tearfund, between 400,000 and one million people die annually from illnesses and diseases due to rubbish being dumped or burnt near homes. Using health to encourage recyclingRachael created workshops for her women’s group. 

“There would be a lot of show and tell, with practical solutions. Asking communities if they can tell us in their own words how they are impacted by current methods of disposing of waste. What do they think they can do differently? This would culminate in workshops on how to re-use waste for a purpose or income,” she said.   

“There is still a long way to go but it is wonderful to see how eloquently and practically our local staff, women’s groups and NGO’s can relay the information in a way everyone understands. There is always a lot of laughter, fun, questions and suggestions which shows real engagement, she said.  

Oceans of waste  

Every year we dump around 2.12 billion tons of waste. According to The World Counts, if all this waste was put on trucks, they would go around the world 24 times.  

Rainfall washes land litter into rivers, which run into the oceans. This impacts the air we breathe as marine plants produce around 70% of the planet’s oxygen 

The island of Montserrat in the West Indies has a small population of around 4,500 people. But there was no recycling resources and landfill sites and littering were causing problems.  

Emmy Aston owns a dive and water-sports company on the island and has seen not only what was happening on land, but also below. 

Montserrat has amazingly beautiful reefs, beaches and forests. However, on too many dives, beach visits and hikes we were seeing trashEvery dive we try to pick up any trash that we see, and we encourage our divers to do the same. But then we thought, how can we stop it from even getting to this point. And so EcoMontserrat began,” Emmy said.   

The NGO decided to tackle glass, which was being tossed in the street or stayed in landfill sites, where it would remain for at least the next 4,000 years. Since they started one year ago, they have collected the same glass tonnage as the equivalent of nearly two humpback whales. 

EcoMontserrat collecting the glass.

Learning on the job  

Aside from the usual home and shopping recycling/repurposing, neither Emmy nor Rachael had previous experience and were driven by wanting to make a positive change 

Having received a Darwin Initiative grant, EcoMontserrat purchased a glass crushing machine, a truck and implemented island-wide glass drop-off sites. They also provided bins and a weekly pick-up. The glass was then crushed to be repurposedThe crushed glass is kept on-island to keep a lower carbon footprint and provide jobs to locals.  

“I think our first successes really came from our community asking for more receptacles. We had bar owners calling us up saying you guys only gave me one recycling bin – I need one, two or three,” said Emmy. 

Emmy second from left at EcoMontserrat.

We had a lot of feedback about the surrounding areas being cleaner and less trash in the garbagemaking it lighter to take out. It was great to hear from the community why they think it is important and changes that they are noticing,” she added. 

Community buy-in is essential if the project is to make an impact, Rachael agreed 

Take a look at the real needs within your community, ensure that whatever you do enhances themCollaborate with other likeminded individuals and organisations,” she said.  

For Rachael, success has been the sheer numbers of people joining for community clean-ups. Plus witnessing the pride in her students when they have earned money from the skills learned. Their work is now recognised by local government health and education teams and partnerships with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife.

EcoMontserrat giving out alternatives to plastic.


Part of the big picture 

Waste management is crucial to conservation and can have long-lasting repercussions on wildlife and, ultimately, humans.   

We have seen trash get into our soil, wrap itself around animals or end up in their bellies and go into streams and rivers which lead to our oceans. We eat things which come out of plastic wrappers verses things that naturally break down like banana peels. Trash and waste are going to be a part of our society. How we deal with that affects our environment, our lives and our future generations,” said Emmy. 

We see protected and endangered animal faeces full of plastics – and in some cases even glass. We see fabulous sunsets over the river, which sadly are often visually enhanced when the sky is heavy with smog from burning waste. If our waste was repurposed/recycled, these damaging environmental impacts would be significantly reduced, if not eradicated,” said Rachael 

Bottle cap artwork by African Impact Volunteer.


Recycling during lockdown 

With countries in lockdown due to COVID-19, recycling does not need to end. People are at home for most of the day which means more products are being consumed. Eco Bricks can be made with plastic. Art can be created with children with items such as toilet roll.  

This time allows people to think of how to create or support recycling projects once lockdowns end.   

With fewer people on the beaches and parks, less litter will enter the natural environment. But, within some communities there will be build-ups at home, which will create a knock-on effect on recycling efforts once restrictions ease.   


If you would like to know more about EcoMontserrat you can follow them on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ecomontserrat . Pure Skills are also on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/PureSkillsFoundation/ 

Main image: Eco bricking with the Livingstone community.

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