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Solving Haiti’s Drastic Plastic Problem

Ramase Lajan collection center in Delmas 31, Port-au-Prince.
Ramase Lajan collection center in Delmas 31, Port-au-Prince.

I was recently forwarded Prospery Raymond’s post on waste for the Guardian posted on June 5.  The title to the article was “Haiti could solve it’s drastic plastic problem and help it’s most vulnerable.” As a business owner that transforms trash from the poorest neighborhoods in Haiti into fabric and a member of a collective that collects and processes over a half million pounds of trash monthly while supporting over 2,000 opportunities for income, the title to Prospery’s post warrants revision. The truth is, Haiti is already actively solving its drastic plastic problem.  Not only is the plastic being recycled, it’s being transformed into some of the most responsible finished products on the planet, supporting regional trade partners (instead of China), and soon will be used to make finished goods for sale and export in Haiti. What’s more, it’s not the government responsible for this progress, it’s Haitians themselves.

My company Thread, with partners at Haiti Recycling, SRS, Executives without Borders, and the over 2,000 Haitians in the network who own collection centers, work at one of the group’s processing facilities, or save plastic in their homes or collect it for cash, has removed over 200 million bottles from the streets of Haiti. The network has a presence in nearly a dozen Haitian cities, and collectors have access to training and waste education in the neighborhoods from which they operate. Even with significant progress, an expectation to grow collection by at least 5 times in the coming two years, and requiring a fraction of the billions Raymond posits we need for management in his post, we think we’re barely scratching the surface.

I think it’s time to be done with the bare minimum.  I think it’s time we stop depending on poor governments to save poor people (though they certainly have a role to play), and I think it’s time we all start thinking bigger. What would a new system look like?

Just recycling isn’t going to cut it.  Collection and shipping to the Asian market does nothing to support an elegant manufacturing infrastructure in Haiti and perpetuates what is already an immensely inefficient, dirty, and wasteful global supply chain infrastructure.  In the 21st century, Haitian trash getting collected and shipped the 12,000 miles to China and transformed into cheap packaging so it can be shipped back another 8,000 miles to the United States to be used once, thrown away, and carted to landfills to rot for the next 10,000 years is, frankly, a stupid and old-fashioned model.  Likewise, we’re tired of Haiti positioning itself in its usual place at the kid’s table.

At Thread, we’ve developed a closed loop system, where waste that starts as trash in neighborhoods like Cite Soleil, gets processed in Haiti, is moved to the U.S. to be turned into 100 percent post-consumer recycled fabric, and now has the ability to be moved back to Haiti to be cut and sewn into finished goods, then exported at profit.  We track the progress of each yard of fabric from Ground to Good, and share the quantitative social and environmental impact data with our customers, as well as the stories of the people who’s lives are changing because of the process.

In this scenario, transport distance is cut by nearly 80 percent on average (compared to China), durable recyclable goods are used in favor of throwaway packaging, and most importantly, what starts as trash in some of the of the poorest neighborhoods in the Western hemisphere is transformed into something beautiful. Something the folks working at any level of the process can be proud of. This system supports a multiple of the jobs we can ever hope to create by simply shipping trash to Asia, and for the first time in Haiti, closes the loop on waste at scale. Fabric is only the beginning, and while government support is always helpful, we need not depend on the Haitian public sector to solve the problem. Let’s solve it ourselves, through thoughtful facilitation, accompaniment, and the same innovation and ingenuity we see daily from our poorest friends in their constant crusade to keep food on their tables and roofs over their heads.

We think Haiti is capable of revolutionizing how the world looks at garbage. Haiti can become a global leader on closed loop waste systems, not in three or five or ten years, but right now.  We call on apparel and accessories companies, particularly those who participate in supply chains that are actively destroying the poor and the planet, to open their eyes and join us.

Poverty is a disease. It is possible to end it by the time we have grandchildren. The cure is decent, dignified jobs. There are enough to go around, and while this isn’t the fix we need to create a truly equitable and zero waste society, we think it’s a decent start.

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