By Kennedy Nyavaya
If the global population adheres to a standard of one disposal face mask per day after lockdowns end, scientists have estimated that the pandemic could result in a monthly global consumption and waste of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves (ScienceMag.org).
For a country like Zimbabwe, these approximations sound a far cry from reality since many people are now using washable cloth masks while others reuse masks and gloves meant for single use.
However, in a document released two months ago, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) projected that more than 4,2 million masks will end up in our environment and water bodies daily, posing a potential health and ecological tragedy.
This is a terrifying revelation, coming at a time when the country’s big cities like Harare are struggling with proper waste management systems in what has seen a spike in wanton dumping and burning of rubbish.
Last month, the country joined the world in commemorating World Clean-Up Day and a number of youths participated by going into the streets to clean different parts in the capital city.
But, almost instantly afterwards, heaps of rubbish could be seen at the same spots they had cleared. This triggers the question whether the nation has the desire and capacity to deal with waste sustainably.
“…we cleaned up the dump at Montague two weeks [ago] with @CleanCityAfrica yesterday, a pic was taken and it’s as if we never cleaned …,” tweeted environmental activist Elizabeth Gulugulu on her account @lizgulaz.
In essence, the waste management crisis in the country has been constant over the years with no viable solutions in sight.
In Harare, the city’s struggles with refuse collection has seen citizens resort to unconventional means of disposing waste and in worst-case scenarios city cleaners have also been seen burning collected trash in the streets and alleys.
All this can be resolved if citizens nurture a culture of separating and recycling waste, says EMA’s environmental education and publicity manager Amkela Sidange.
“We really need to go full force into the communities to try and effect this change in mindset because we still have a culture of throwing things away, so we need to work on that until people understand that this is not waste at all, but a raw material and something that can be brought back to life,” said Sidange during an interview on Heart & Soul radio’s Green Business show.
According to Sidange, the country discards close to two million tonnes of refuse annually and 90% of it is recyclable, biodegradable or compostable, meaning “we just have a minute 10% that can be destined for landfilling, after thorough analysis”.
“It is very possible to have a zero-waste status whereby there is nothing discarded into the environment, everything that comes out of one system becomes of value to the next,” she said.
“We need to inculcate in our people that it is very possible not to have refuse trucks running up and down from dumpsites because there is nothing that comes out of my residential area each week as waste.”
However, for sustainable waste management to be successfully implemented, there is need for all hands on deck and big corporates should be willing to play ball when it comes to creating a circular economy — a concept aimed at eliminating waste and influencing continual use of resources.
“The waste issue that continues to bedevil our community has got a huge impact on community health and wellbeing. In the rainy season, we note an upsurge in diarrhoeal diseases and most of these cases are traced back to the contamination of domestic water sources by seepage from undesignated dumpsites,” Lafarge Cement head of communications Tsungie Manyeza said.
Lafarge has been helping over 16 000 households in Mabvuku and Tafara high-density areas, surrounding their plant, to clear mounds of uncollected waste in a bid to enforce sustainable waste management.
Through partnerships with local recycling groups, the giant cement maker is supporting waste collection for recycling in a
revenue-generating model that makes the programme sustainable.
“For us, sustainable waste management helps in reducing and eliminating health risks associated with accumulated litter, while also empowering members of the community to earn a decent living through returns from collecting materials for recycling,” added Manyeza.
Such efforts by corporates are refreshing although more firms should show meaningful initiative in “taking care of the backbone of production [the environment]”.
In developed countries, recycling of waste has brought immense benefits for the ordinary consumer who can cash in things like reusable plastic products for grocery vouchers in addition to creating lucrative jobs in the recycling sector.
At a macro level, recycling also avoids the cost of waste disposal in landfills and as fewer are needed, more land can be put to other uses, saving money on space and boosting revenue.
“There are a lot of opportunities that lie in the waste that we are generating as a country, if really our people think the same way and have a shared vision that as a country we are able not to produce something that we call waste,” said Sidange, adding that everyone should be open to eliminating waste.
“We must not have a situation where local authorities are looking for space to set up disposal sites because we know at the end of the day everything goes back into the utility waste disposal system. The most important thing is letting our people know that it starts at individual level,” she said.
In August, a fire razed Harare’s largest dumping site in Pomona for weeks for the umpteenth time and residents in surrounding suburbs were affected through breathing intoxicated air.
EMA’s air quality tests — using micro dust samplers — proved that the emissions during that period were extremely above the World Health Organisation as well as Standards Association of Zimbabwe regulations, posing a great health hazard.
This proves that beyond any bickering and finger-pointing on who may be responsible for the dumping eyesore that is seen by all, particularly in cities, there is need to think sustainably before one throws anything away.
Failure to do this will result in collective suffering for all as everyone is bound to be affected by nature’s response to such ecological carelessness.