In my previous article (entitled Who will fight for the people of Zimbabwe? NewsDay, July 11, 2017), I analysed the exposure of Zimbabweans to toxic gases from the burning of plastic and kaylite waste on a large scale, and outlined how policymakers, business and civil society appeared to either turn a blind eye or contributed to exacerbation of the problem. Coincidentally, two days later, the Zimbabwean government finally effected a kaylite ban using Statutory Instrument 84 of 2012.
This development was a good thing (congratulations to the government), and the difference in volumes of waste in the space of a few days is noticeable. However, the burning of plastic waste is, but a symptom of deeper underlying problems, and it would be foolish to think that the banning of kaylite alone will solve the problems.
In my view, the underlying problem is that Zimbabwe has an unsustainable national waste management strategy and that institutional and societal actors are collectively responsible. This problem developed slowly over the years, and the result is that what used to work during the “good old days” no longer works.
More people have migrated to the towns, where they have grown lazier in the name of “convenience” and “comfort” (hence, the popularity of kaylites, which enables the food industry to do away with washing plates). Products with shorter lifespans before being taken to their “grave” at the landfill have flooded the market.
This article will ponder the possibilities of changing from the status quo to a sustainable national waste management strategy. By national waste management strategy, I refer to the “bigger picture” on how institutional actors and the public manage the type, quantity, quality, use and disposal of waste. I will briefly outline the sustainability principles forming the basis of my discussion, assess the situation on the ground using these principles, and explore ways of moving from the current unsustainable scenario.
Zimbabwean institutions: Machines or living organisms?
The traditional conceptualisation of organisations as well-oiled machines designed to achieve specific goals, which came into being in the 17th century (Capra, 2002), appears to be deep-rooted in Zimbabwe. Hence, it is natural for leaders of Zimbabwean organisations to meticulously set up formal administrative structures with clear hierarchical lines of communication.
The main advantages of the mechanistic culture for organisations are that formal structures confer stability and enable the organisation to meet its goals in the short term. The disadvantages are that the organisation becomes detached from the society and fails to respond quickly to new, complex social and environmental challenges. The mechanistic organisation, anchored on administrative leadership, is likely to be bureaucratic, lack resilience, and neglect its social and environmental responsibilities.
On the other hand, an organisation can be conceptualised as a living organism, capable of responding swiftly to changes in its environment, and embedded within the society in which it operates (Capra, 2002).
This conceptualisation forms the basis of adaptive leadership, which is hailed as being capable of managing the interdependence of parties involved in a conflict (Lotrecchiano, 2010). My view is that Zimbabwean institutions need to strike the right balance between administrative and adaptive leadership if we are to move towards a sustainable waste management strategy.
I will use issues raised in my first article to advance my argument, but first, I will briefly discuss the principle of shared value, which Zimbabwean organisations cannot afford to ignore for much longer.
The principle of shared value
The idea of shared value is the brainchild of Porter and Kramer (2009), who define it as “… policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.”
They argue that the long term competitiveness of a company is strongly related to the health of the communities in which it operates, as healthy communities demand more goods and services, boosting economic activity in the process.
By “value” they refer to benefits compared to costs (that is net benefits). Although their focus is on companies, they highlight that the principle of shared value equally benefits any organisation, be it government, local authorities, NGOs, political parties and religious organisations. I will now discuss Zimbabwe’s National Waste Management Strategy through the lens of a conceptualisation of organisations as machines or living organisms, and the principle of shared value.
The status Quo: Keep Zim clean, put litter/garbage in a bin
In Zimbabwe, only derogatory terms are used to describe waste: Waste is litter, garbage, or rubbish (I made reference to the rubbish dump in the previous article). And there is one simple place in which to put it: a bin. Does this strategy seem simplistic?
Unfortunately, that is the way most companies, local authorities, government, civic society, churches and the public think. A label on packaging material, or an advertisement in the newspaper or on radio by whichever institution, is likely to read like this: “Keep Zimbabwe clean, put litter in a bin”. In fact, any general worker of a company, parastatal, government department or political party can be assigned to copy or draft the advertisement or label, no marketing manager is required.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes that Zimbabweans are so daft that the only thing they can understand about waste is that it is “litter that must be put in a bin”.
This treats people like cogs in a machine designed to manage waste in an unsustainable manner. I stand to be corrected, but I think this type of thinking must have been borrowed from the colonial era. In many countries, such as South Africa, it is now well known that waste can be classified and separated at source into organic waste, plastic waste, glass and metal waste. Local authorities put bins with labels, making it easy for the public to know where to put their waste. Waste is useful, it can be composted and used in home gardens, can be a source of energy, and can be recycled.
People listen to what they hear from institutions, be it their government, their companies, their church, their political party, or their non-governmental organisation. If institutions in Zimbabwe can get out of the trap of mechanistic thinking, they can transform waste management in a sustainable way that enables them to gain a competitive advantage while at the same time contributing to societal well-being.
If all institutions speak with one voice, the new message will be transmitted frequently to the public from all directions that it will be possible to change the mindset of the public with regards to waste. From an administrative leadership point of view, government can outlaw home burning of plastic waste and this will empower citizens to report those who continue burning plastic waste.
Institutions need to tell people in their advertisements that burning waste is harmful to their own health, and that separating organic waste and using it to improve the soil fertility in their home gardens enables them to get higher yields of nutritious fruits and vegetables at a lower cost. Churches cannot afford to take waste management as something that is outside their mandate: God cannot protect people who deliberately harm themselves.
For local authorities, the additional resources spent in educating the public should be partly or completely offset by the reduced volumes of waste they will have to take to the landfill.
Recycling companies will get cleaner waste that has not been soiled by organic waste. People can keep their plastic waste for longer when they have separated it from organic waste and they do not have to dump it at some “away” place nearby where it may be burned, if the local authority delays in collecting it.
Companies themselves can save money by voluntarily reducing the packaging materials they use for packaging their products while simultaneously reducing toxic emissions, like Wal-Mart did (Porter and Kramer, 2009).
Last week I anonymously went around all the big fast food outlets in Harare, looking for empty beverage PET bottles that I could use to propagate avocado seeds in water. I asked them if they separate their waste so that they could give me the PET bottles, and all of them gave me a standard answer “No, we do not separate our waste.” I then asked if they could separate the PET bottles so I could come and collect them, and again their answer was standard, they would not do it “because it slows down service delivery.” Really?
I went home thinking, “Are these companies machines or living organisms?” Economic companies or learning companies? When people employed by well-established food companies that are held in high esteem, are trained not to separate their waste at work, how can the local authority train them to do so? They will say: you council people are crazy, we do not have time for that, you must do it yourselves!
Good, quiet companies
In the fast food industry, there were some companies such as Nandos and KFC that were already using biodegradable packaging well before the kaylite ban was finally effected.
These companies would score higher on both the shared value principle and the adaptive leadership approach.
What these companies did not see or overlooked, was the opportunity to derive a competitive advantage from their more environmentally friendly packaging. If they had taken the loudspeaker and advertised their pro-environmental strategy, they might have further increased their market share, and this might have prompted other big fast food outlets to follow suit.
On the other hand, those companies that had been using kaylite made a last-ditch effort to influence Government policy through the Retailers Association of Zimbabwe and the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (Machamire, 2017).
Their arguments were based on speculation on food price hikes (what if cheaper, healthier packaging could be found?), lack of adequate consultation before the ban (despite the fact that consultations on banning kaylite started in 2008) and assertions that kaylites are still being used in South Africa.
From a shared value perspective, would the hypothetical price hikes be more costly to both the customers and the companies, in the long term, compared to the health costs associated with continued kaylite use?
Companies in Zimbabwe have to realise that their consumers are becoming more knowledgeable on environmental matters, and that pro-environmental behaviour and adaptive leadership actually makes their brand stronger and more resilient in the market.
Zimbabwean institutions need to free themselves from the trap of administrative leadership and embrace adaptive leadership in order to co-operate with each other in formulating a sustainable national waste management strategy.