MBABANE, ESWATINI: Every morning, Lungile Beuta scouts the streets of Babane on a scavenger hunt for discarded plastic waste.
Most days, she returns to her office at Dzeliwe Street in Mbabane, eSwatini’s capital, with bags of plastic waste. On other days, she rings up a group of rural women who help her in this journey to turn waste into something beautiful and sustainable.
And some voluntarily bring their waste to her.
“It is done through the Bantwana community – certain individuals keep hung waste in their homes, and when a refuse bag is filled, they bring it over to Bantwana Crafts [hersocial enterprise that transforms plastic waste into colourful personal fashion accessories],“ she said.
With each passing day, Beuta’s passion illuminates the path toward a greener future for her community. But she had not always been like this.
The mother of three was a preschool teacher, and lessons from her teaching experience pushed her to start the Bantwana Craft.
eSwatini’s problem with plastic waste
With a population of 1.2 million, eSwatini is grappling with plastic waste pollution, as three of the country’s five major retail stores distribute 1.9 million single-use plastic bags monthly, according to a report published in Science Direct, a peer review journal.
The Report also shows that in eSwatini, each rural household generates an average of 15.9 g of plastic waste daily, with most of this waste disposed of by public burning or thrown into gutters from where they get into water bodies.
“Living in a semi-rural area myself, 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 said.
Local livestock farmer, Malcolm Cliff, also said he had found the river water 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 said.
He 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 glasses, and numerous other contaminants that would have not only destroyed their soil by making it toxic but also killed the plants or poisoning them.
An accidental campaigner
Now in her early 40s, Beuta never expected her life to go this route. 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 children at the Riverside Preschool that her interest was piqued.
She remembered taking regular walks with the school kids around the Ring Road, teaching them how to collect waste.
Once, as graduation day came and with the price of fabric beyond the reach of the school management, “I decided to improvise and use the waste packets to sew backpacks which would be handed out to some kids as graduation gifts,” she recalls.
She made a sample that turned out great, so she decided to make them for all the kids. The children and parents loved it, and they suggested she start a business. And that was how Bantwana Craft was born in 2017.
When Bantwana Craft gets this plastic waste, the next step is processing, which involves washing, rinsing and sanitising the packages, then they are hung to dry.
“Thereafter, the production process begins in the workshop, which entails cutting certain patterns from designs, followed by the sewing process and then, the quality check,” Beuta revealed.
According to her, when all quality standards have been met, packaging begins for sale and delivery of orders already placed.
The handicraft business upcycles plastic waste products such as chip packets, chocolate and sweet wrappers to make coin purses, pencil cases, toiletry bags, makeup bags, backpacks, and hats in various designs.
Since its inception six years ago, Batwana Craft has converted more than 10,000 kilograms of plastic waste into reusable products, as Beuta continues to lead advocacy for reusable waste in eSwatini.
Every month, Beuta, who has one employee, makes between E5k and E9k (S$274-$493) as profit. Her daughters help out in the business during school holidays.
However, disparaging comments from some people about Beuta and her products could be very discouraging.
“People’s attitude towards buying upcycled products is an obstacle; the negative stigma attached to the idea of upcycled products as low-quality,” she says. “We have the understanding that a repurposed product is of a low quality whereas it’s the other way round.”
But she finds consolation in the fact that Batwana Crafts’ effort at tackling plastic waste has drawn praise from the eSwatini government.
Belusile Mhlanga, environmental information officer at the eSwatini Environment Authority or EEA, said Batwana’s work helps reduce the number of households managing their waste through open burning from the current 80%.
He said he hopes the sensitisation part reaches a stage where “when these women collect the plastics from the source, they find it in good condition.”
And Beuta concedes that 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,” she said. “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.”
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.