Profiting from upcycled plastic waste
Every morning, Lungile Beuta scouts the streets of Mbabane, the capital of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) in southern Africa, on a scavenger hunt for discarded plastic waste. Most days she returns to her office with bags of the stuff. Other days, she calls up a group of rural women who help her turn the waste into something both beautiful and long-lasting; some of them bring their own waste along to add.
Beuta says people keep their waste hung in bags in their homes and when the bags are full, they bring them over to Bantwana Craft, her social enterprise that transforms the waste into colourful personal fashion accessories.
With a population of 1.2 million, Eswatini is grappling with plastic waste pollution. Three of the country’s five major retail stores distribute 1.9 million single-use plastic bags every month, according to a report in Science Direct. Each rural household generates an average of 16g of plastic waste daily, with most of it burnt or thrown into gutters, eventually ending up in waterways.
“Living in a semi-rural area, we witness livestock, such as cattle consuming the plastics, and a week or two later, you find out they died. Some of our homesteads are still ‘getting rid’ of their waste by digging pits and burning the waste in them,” Beuta says.
Local livestock farmer, Malcolm Cliff, says he found the local river riddled with takeaway containers, tins and plastic bags on many of his fishing expeditions. “We caught a few fish but put them back in the river we were fishing in because they looked sickly. I’ve seen goats and cows chewing on plastic bags, and a few days or even a week later, they become ill and sometimes even die because the plastic blocks their colon,” he adds. Cliff also recalls instances when he collected grass for his compost heap and ended up spending days sifting through the grass, pulling out plastic bags, condoms, tins, broken glass, and other contaminants.
Now in her early 40s, Beuta never expected her life to take this course. Although she studied fashion design and technology at the Witwatersrand Technikon (now the University of Johannesburg) and her mother used to weave baskets, it was when she taught preschoolers that her interest piqued.
She remembers taking regular walks with her students, teaching them how to collect waste. As graduation day approached one year and with the price of fabric beyond the reach of school management, “I decided to improvise and use the waste packets to sew backpacks that would be handed out to some kids as graduation gifts,” she recalls. The sample turned out so well she decided to make them for all the students, who along with their parents were impressed enough to suggest she start a business. And so in 2017 Bantwana Craft was born.
The repurposing process is straightforward enough. The plastic waste is washed, rinsed and sanitised and then hung to dry. Next, designs are cut and sewn, then quality-checked and packaged for sale or order. Goods include coin purses, pencil cases, toiletry bags, makeup bags, backpacks, and hats in various designs.
So far, Batwana Craft has converted more than 10,000 kilos of plastic waste into reusable products. Beuta has one employee and her daughters help out during school holidays. She makes between E5k–E9k a month in profit; the average monthly wage in Eswatini is E4.6k.
Beuta challenges the view that her goods are of low quality. “People’s attitude towards buying upcycled products is obstacle. [Many think] a repurposed product is of a low quality whereas it’s the other way round.”
Batwana Craft’s effort at tackling plastic waste has drawn praise from the Eswatini government. Belusile Mhlanga, environmental information officer at the Eswatini Environment Authority, argues Batwana’s work helps reduce the number of households burning plastic, currently as much as 80%. He adds he hopes awareness reaches a stage where “when these women collect the plastics, they find it in good condition”.
And Beuta concedes a lot of work still needs to be done. “The damage has been done on our Earth, but we are here to salvage what is left and restore it where possible. It’s a huge task, and no one can do it alone. The time is now, and we must work together with one goal in mind. It is possible if we all pull our weight to make the globe the best place to live again, one plastic at a time,” she notes.
TOP Beuta at an exhibition with her works
ABOVE A market stall
PHOTOS Prime Progress