One finds the most amazing gems in the most unexpected of places.
A GreenIt! consultant urged me to visit a recycling operation in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Ladysmith is a microcosm of South Africa, with an urban core and a rural hinterland, inclusive of most of the diverse people in the country.
There is a large population of Indians, the descendants of indentured labour that arrived here in the 1800s.
English speaking and Afrikaans speaking people there, with a small Chinese business community as well.
Even the Italians are there, complete with genuine espresso and real pizzas at Sonia’s.
With a majority of the population being Zulu of course – Ladysmith is not too distant from the place where the British Empire suffered one of its worst defeats at the hands of indigenous people.
It is also the home of Ladysmith-Black Mambazo, of Paul Simon and “Diamonds In The Soles Of Her Shoes” fame.
We arrived at the recycling depot, a large yard on the outskirts of one of the suburbs.
Just outside water was leaking from a burst pipe, unattended.
The Indian owner of the recycling business apologised for the water leaking, and explained how he had sought to have the local water agency address this problem in vain.
He wanted to make the point that it was ironical, as inside the yard recycling was taking place, the diametric opposite of the wastage outside.
His father had started the business and when he took it over he had transformed it into a modern equivalent.
In the offices his family, sons and daughters, manned the computers along with other members of the extended family.
It is a family business and therein lies immediately a sustainability strength.
The real stuff however lay in the large warehouse.
Mounds, pyramids of rubbish, collected by large trucks, all financed from the credibility of the enterprise, no subsidies.
The same rubbish had helped educate his sons and daughters at tertiary institutions.
The owner explained how “runners”, informal street entrepreneurs, would run ahead of the municipal trucks doing their beats and rummage through the bins just in time to retrieve what could be recycled.
These runners would then meet up with his trucks, load the recyclable material, and be remunerated for their efforts.
A machine squashing sorted material was busy at work.
Bales of compressed cans, compressed paper, compressed plastic containers … and most fascinatingly compressed plastic wrappings.
There they stood, sorted and baled, ready to be shipped off.
Outside a Kilimanjaro of glass was standing, ready to be shipped away as well.
It was the bales of plastic wrappings, the kind that flutters in the wind on barbed wire or thorn trees or lies deep in streams and waterways just clogging everything up forever … it was these bales that really stood out for me.
“What do you do with them?” I asked.
“Oh, these go off to a factory in Newcastle to be turned into synthetic fibres” he replied.