One day about eight years ago, Executive Director Benedicta Nanyonga and some other women from Kinawataka Women Initiatives (KIWOI) discovered that the garbage polluting the nearby drainage ditch had reached a critical mass and needed to be picked out to unblock the flow of water. In one of the plastic bags that frequently litter the ditches, they found a few empty bottles and some plastic drinking straws. It was then that Benedicta struck upon a truly innovative idea: why not use the plastic straws to weave mats and bags, as they were already doing with natural fibers. So Benedicta adapted the traditional weaving technique and developed a process to create the plastic straw products. Her first product was a mat, for which she spent 500 shillings on materials (for water and and detergent) but sold for 7,000 shillings. A new income generating activity was born, enabling women of Kinawataka and beyond to, as KIWOI says, “turn a burden into a benefit.”
When I first read about Kinawataka Women Initiatives and the expansive line of straw products, I was impressed by the array of unique handicrafts that could come out of recycling other people’s trash. But I was also curious as to how such a large quantity of plastic straws was to be found. Personally, I don’t like to drink out of straws, so I rarely use them and had no idea they were so popular. Yet, various online sources claim that somewhere between 60 million to 500 million plastic straws are used daily in the United States! Most of these would be properly thrown away in bins before reaching their final destination of a landfill (a majority are made from polypropylene, a plastic which is not as commonly recycled). But slum areas in the developing world often lack proper waste disposal and collection; and garbage, including used straws and especially those polythene bags (locally called kavera), can end up carelessly discarded, polluting the environment, embedded in dirt roads and piling up in ditches like the ones in Kinawataka. The kavera degrade soil, harm animals who ingest them, and serve as breeding grounds for disease-spreading germs.
Many of the kavera that are not tossed by the wayside are burned in heaps of trash, releasing nasty dioxins and other toxins into the environment. In recent years, Ugandan Parliament passed legislation to ban polythene bags in the country; however, the ban has still not been implemented. A Ugandan newspaper called New Vision reported just two days ago that Members of Parliament on the Natural Resources committee are threatening to block the budget for the Ministry of Water and Environment if the minister does not implement the ban on kavera. Should the ban be enforced, I am not sure how long it would take for the kavera to be eradicated from slum areas.
KIWOI has worked to inform the community about the hazards of these bags, hoping to persuade households to instead use reusable alternatives such as the straw bags, made out of locally available materials with local labor. Sturdy, reusable, washable, and eco-friendly, the plastic straw shopping bags provide an excellent alternative to the kavera, indeed.
Since the invention of these woven plastic straw products was fairly new, I wondered if plastic straws had always been so voluminous here in Uganda. Benedicta explained they hadn’t been, but the popularity of straws increased with the spread of HIV/AIDS. She said that a lack of knowledge about virus transmission gave rise to fear of infection from such things as improperly cleaned drinking glasses. It is quite common to use straws to drink out of glass soda bottles as well—some might be concerned about how sanitary the bottle necks are or find it more elegant to drink from a straw. Many beer bottle necks, at least, are covered in foil, which one can unwrap before drinking. I seriously can’t imagine using a straw to swill beer, but apparently some people do!
As KIWOI’s straw handicraft production ramped up, the collection of the straws became quite a difficult chore, because the pickers had to go far and wide to acquire enough. Eventually Benedicta thought to ask the Coca-Cola plant if KIWOI could take the straws from there, for free. This is where I was a bit fuzzy again: why were there so many used straws at the Coca-Cola plant? Well, glass bottles fetch a deposit refund and are often returned to the plant with straws left inside. Coca-Cola required some paperwork and that KIWOI employees were properly decked out in proper refuse collection uniforms, but agreed to the request to collect the straws from the plant.
This was a boon for the straw business because it vastly reduced the amount of time needed to collect the straws and would provide a large quantity of free materials. This is one reason the straw products have been such a successful endeavor. KIWOI has engaged in a number of income-generating activities since its formation in 1998, including mushroom growing, wine-making, and basket-making, but these other activities are more capital-intensive. For the straw products, most of the cost is for labor, which provides a number of women (and several men) employment opportunities across the ten steps of the production process (collecting, sorting, sterilizing, cleaning, drying, pressing/flattening, weaving, joining, cutting, and stitching). Conveniently, most of the weaving can be done at home.
Collection no longer a challenge, straw pressing is the chief problem in production. Hand pressing is inefficient and often painful. It typically takes two minutes to press a single straw flat, but can take up to ten minutes a piece for the really tough straws! (I haven’t yet determined how many straws it takes to make a bag, but suffice it to say—many). Benedicta has been on the hunt for a machine that can press the straws, but the ideal machine has remained elusive. Last year, a grant enabled KIWOI to purchase a custom-built straw press, guaranteed to work for six months without repair. However, the machine lasted only half that time and the manufacturer refused to fix it without additional payment. So back manual pressing for the time being. There is clearly not a big market for plastic straw pressing machines, so it is very possible that one needs to be designed and built specifically for this project. A machine would enable increased production and, thus, increased employment opportunities for women in the community.