Who will fight for the people of Zimbabwe?

The people of Zimbabwe are suffering silently from exposure to unprecedented levels of environmental pollutants, out of ignorance or helplessness. It looks like no one is prepared to fight for them (even the people themselves). No one cares. After all, not even one death in Zimbabwe has been attributed to environmental pollution, so surely exposure to pollutants is not fatal?

OPINION: Macdonald Mamina

Largely in defence of economic actors profiting from kaylite and plastic, government, civil society, business and the public, have either turned a blind eye to these toxins and their effects, or made ineffective, disjointed and inconsistent noises, and surely, who will fight for the people of Zimbabwe?
Largely in defence of economic actors profiting from kaylite and plastic, government, civil society, business and the public, have either turned a blind eye to these toxins and their effects, or made ineffective, disjointed and inconsistent noises, and surely, who will fight for the people of Zimbabwe?

If I were to cover the host of pollutants that constitute a public health time bomb in Zimbabwe, and how political, social, and economic actors are accused of turning a blind eye to these, I could end up with a huge book. My article, therefore, will focus on the large scale exposure of Zimbabweans to toxic pollutants from the widespread burning of ever-growing amounts of kaylite and plastic waste. This can safely be attributed to unchecked economic activity in a corrupted policy environment.

Kaylite is non-biodegradable, toxic to animals because it blocks their digestive systems when eaten, and when burned, it produces a sooty flame indicative of incomplete combustion, emitting styrene gas, which is toxic to the human nervous system (Green Living Tips, 2011). Plastic is also non-biodegradable, and burning plastic produces toxins like mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), furans and dioxins, which persist in the environment and are linked with health problems such as cancer, babies with deformities, respiratory illnesses, liver, and kidney failure (Women in Europe for a Common Future). These toxins contaminate water and soil, accumulating in fish and crops, and can be passed on to the unborn child through the placenta (Women in Europe for a Common Future).

Largely in defence of economic actors profiting from kaylite and plastics, government, civil society, business and the public, have either turned a blind eye to these toxins and their effects, or made ineffective, disjointed and inconsistent noises, and surely, who will fight for the people of Zimbabwe?

The government — threatening to act?

So far, the government is credited with periodic threats over the years to ban the use of kaylite and some forms of plastic, with none of the threats coming to pass. The history of threatening to ban kaylite dates back to as far as 2008, when consultations over the banning of certain forms of plastic began (The Herald, 2011). The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) website reports that the use of kaylite in Zimbabwe is prohibited by Statutory Instrument 84 of 2012 “as read with Section 140 of the Environmental Management Act (Cap 20:27)”. The same report paradoxically notes that government had given up to June 1, 2016 for kaylite users to present solutions on how to manage the product, and curiously, the headline of the report ponders whether kaylite should be banned.

In May 2016, shortly before the deadline, local newspapers noted how the use of kaylite had become even more widespread, with big supermarkets and fast food outlets such as Chicken Inn and Chicken Slice using it for packaging, and began questioning whether there was still a kaylite ban in Zimbabwe (The Standard, 2016). The June 2016 deadline passed, and no further announcement was heard from government.

This silence can only lead to a fast- growing list of unanswered questions. Had government retreated with its tail between its legs? Or else the government may have been gently reminded of the loss of tax revenue and job losses in the plastic and kaylite industry if it proceeded to execute its threat? Would this tax revenue and jobs be enough reason to sacrifice the health of a nation?

Could there be powerful actors within government with vested interests in the plastics industry? Whichever way one looks at it, it looks like the government is not going to fight for the people of Zimbabwe anytime soon. We, the people, have to breathe-in the toxic gases a little more…

Companies — laughing all the way to the bank?

The main beneficiaries of plastics and kaylite use are companies (from giant multinationals to small and medium scale enterprises), who appear to be laughing all the way to the bank by cutting costs through using plastic and kaylite or making profit from the sales of plastic and kaylite. Foods and beverages consumed in large quantities are increasingly being packaged in plastic or kaylite containers; economic gain is the only consideration.

When Delta Beverages launched its Chibuku Super in a non-returnable plastic bottle, with the packs of six bottles wrapped in plastic again in 2013, a press statement in The Herald lauded the bottle as a “bold and innovative new packaging,” which enhanced Delta Beverages’ “blue chip status” (The Herald, 2013). The company constructed disposal cages for the plastic bottles following government’s ultimatum in 2015, but these cages are overflowing in the high-density suburbs. The Chibuku Super container is a significant part of the waste that is burned, indiscriminately exposing Zimbabweans to toxic gases.

Other than the small print (please recycle) on plastic bottles, companies in Zimbabwe have hardly invested any cent in educating Zimbabweans on recycling or the dangers of burning plastic waste (probably they fear that this will reduce the sales or profits of their products).

Are companies going to fight for the people of Zimbabwe? No chance, if you ask me! After all, when the people of Zimbabwe fall ill (or die), they can never prove that their ill-health (or death) was caused by toxins from the burning of plastic (even if they can, was the plastic from our company, and who had burned it?). The companies cannot be held accountable for the burning of plastic waste, full stop. So, who is going to fight for the people of Zimbabwe? Local authorities?

Local authorities say: We have no money to collect your plastic waste, and we will now burn it at the rubbish dump ourselves!

In June 2017, Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere reportedly issued an ultimatum to Harare City Council (HCC) to remove mounting heaps of garbage all over Harare (NewsDay, 2017), when he toured Glen Norah high density suburb (to assess the state of the roads — a different matter, but very important to politicians before an election!). At the event, HCC pleaded poverty for not collecting waste, but the minister pointed out that the council was sponsoring Harare City Football Club to the tune of $2 million while failing to collect refuse.

Following the ultimatum, HCC went on the rampage, with its cleaners in red uniform openly burning all the heaps of plastic waste in Kambuzuma in broad daylight. Residents, unaware of the health hazards of burning plastic and kaylite, followed in HCC’s footsteps and there was massive backyard burning of these.

Breathing became hell in Kambuzuma, and if there was a way to live without breathing, I would have paid my last cent for it. I went to Kambuzuma council offices twice to make a complaint, pointing out the public health hazard this posed, and even promising to make public their inhuman strategy, and they said they were very sorry, took my number, never contacted me, and continued burning!

After all, they had been given an ultimatum, their jobs were on the line, they had families to feed, a lifestyle to maintain, the health of the people could wait! A week later, they down-sized their burning project, and the rubbish heaps started defiantly building up again. Council had only succeeded in shortening the lifespan and quality of life of its residents, and no one would hold them accountable. I bet the situation in other cities and towns in the country is more or less the same.

Local authorities must be cursing careless, uneducated, and irresponsible residents for dumping their plastic and kaylite waste everywhere, notwithstanding their (local authorities) failure to collect plastic and kaylite waste, and the failure of government to effectively regulate the use of plastic and kaylite.

Local authorities will not fight for the people of Zimbabwe, apparently they are busy fighting to better their salaries and benefits! So will civil society, churches and opposition parties fight for the people of Zimbabwe?

Civil society, churches and opposition parties?

According to the Bible, God gave people the power to act as responsible stewards of the Earth (Genesis 1: 26-28). The Bible further commands us to love our neighbours the same way we love ourselves (Mark 12: 31), but when we burn the plastic waste in our backyards, do we care that the poisonous smoke will drift to our neighbours’ houses, get into their lungs and soil their clothes?

Churches in Zimbabwe have apparently not grasped the fact that burning plastic, kaylite and other waste, is not good stewardship of the earth.

The churches have periodically engaged in or led much-publicised clean-up campaigns, but have not been publicly educating their members on the dangers of burning plastic and kaylite.

While carrying out clean-up campaigns, some even burn the waste. Could it be that churches also hold the view that burning waste constitutes cleaning up the environment? After all, when one burns waste, the smoke eventually goes away (but where?). For some Christians, even when they are aware of the poisonous nature of the gases released when plastic or kaylite is burned, they still believe that “their” God or “their” prophet will protect them from the harmful effects.

The church has the potential to spread the word against burning of waste, but has apparently not done so to date; can they put up a sustained fight for the people of Zimbabwe?

I could go on and on, but civil society and opposition parties have generally not made the fight against burning plastics and kaylite part of their on-going programmes and long-term strategy. They have all periodically adopted the simplistic “throw litter in the bin” and “clean-up campaign” approach.

The burning of plastic and kaylite appears not to be a big problem for these players; probably they have more serious issues like fighting bad governance and food security on their hands. Exposure to PCBs, furans, styrene gas and dioxins does not really matter. After all, no one (not even their supporters) has been documented to have died from such pollutants. Will they fight for the people of Zimbabwe? Or else the people will have to fight on their own? Do they have the knowledge, energy, and determination to fight?

Will the people of Zimbabwe fight?

When Harare City Council started burning plastic and kaylite waste, I was at Kambuzuma 5 shopping centre with my brother, where they had just set alight a rubbish heap close to where I operate a small pool table business. When I told my brother that I was going to complain at the council offices about this, he discouraged me, saying “they will think that you are crazy!”

A day after I made the complaint, a discussion on the matter came up between us, and we had a heated debate, which lasted for over an hour. He was of the view that I was “crazy” and over the last few years (after I studied for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development at Stellenbosch University in South Africa), had become “too obsessed” with health matters. Smoke is smoke, burning is burning, he argued strongly, without any supporting evidence. In the rural areas, we used to cook using firewood — was that not burning?

He also encouraged me to stop fussing about poisonous gases, as God would surely protect us from suffering the effects of exposure to such gases. He was of the view that exposure to harmful levels of pollutants in today’s world is “normal”, as at his workplace, drivers of delivery vehicles left the engines of their vehicles idling in an enclosed environment and everyone, including senior managers and the environmental officer, was exposed to exhaust smoke on a daily basis.

At the Kambuzuma 5 shops, people apparently ignored the smoke, complained casually about it when the wind carried it their way, or remarked how the council had finally cleaned up the environment.

To some people, the environment is what we can see with our eyes, so the plastic litter is a pollutant, but when we burn the plastic litter, this pollutant “disappears” into the big BIN that is called the atmosphere, and the “environment” becomes “clean” again.

Still, other people know how dangerous burning plastic and kaylite is, but they cannot take action for various reasons, which include scrapping for a living (taking action might mean leaving their place of business unattended), informalisation of the economy (they fear council could evict them from their informal business premises if they complain) or a belief that no action will be taken by the responsible authorities.

No wonder I was the “crazy one” fighting a lone battle against council’s tragic waste management strategy.

It looks like the people of Zimbabwe still have to breathe in more of the poisonous gases for the foreseeable future.

Currently, no one is motivated to fight for the people of Zimbabwe —have we come to terms with our fate?

Macdonald Mamina is a sustainability scientist and consultant holding a Post Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Development from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and a BSc Honours Agriculture, Soil Science from the University of Zimbabwe. He has previously worked on agricultural projects in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique. Currently he is in the process of establishing a sustainability consulting firm, which he trusts will incrementally add sustainability to the lives of people and to the returns of projects in Zimbabwe and beyond.

He can be contacted on e-mail macmamina@gmail.com, LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/macdonald-mamina), and Twitter: @macmamina

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