Kyle Poplin

Weekly Roundup: Small victories in the garbage war, but e-waste looms ominously

One man’s trash is another man’s ticket to a healthier planet. Or to an early grave.

We recently told the story on NextBillion of Parag Gupta’s Waste Capital Partners, whose for-profit arm, Waste Ventures India, employs people to collect garbage door-to-door and then resells it as organic compost to farmers, so they can improve agricultural yields. This closed-loop system is a hopeful innovation in India, where solid waste totals in urban areas each week exceed twice the weight of the Empire State Building.

Then we read this week about an amazing program in Indonesia, where poor people trade trash for health care. It’s the brainchild of Dr. Gamal Albinsaid, who runs a startup called Garbage Clinical Insurance. He explains in Fast Company: “Every month, patients bring in a certain amount of recyclables – for example, around 4.5 pounds of bottles and other plastics, or 11 pounds of cardboard – to a health clinic. When it’s recycled, the trash earns the clinic 10,000 Indonesian rupiah, a little less than a dollar. And that’s enough to provide the patient with a basic form of insurance that covers two free monthly visits to the clinic.”

This garbage-for-barter system has immense potential. Albinsaid wonders, for example, if trash could one day be traded for education.

We were starting to get downright optimistic about these small victories in the garbage war … and then we came across a series of stories that gave us a peek at just how overwhelming humanity’s refuse – specifically e-waste – has become.

A Washington Post story headlined “The children who make a living in the toxic world of discarded electronics” details the world’s largest e-waste dumping site, Agbogbloshie, in Accra, Ghana, located on the site of a formerly a lush mangrove swamp. Most of those who work there are young, and they die young.

There are any number of depressing statistics included in the story, including one that trumps the Empire State Building reference above (as gleaned from The Guardian): “The global volume of electronic waste is expected to grow by 33 percent in the next four years, when it will weigh the equivalent of eight of the great Egyptian pyramids.” The Bit Rot Project blog further elucidates the issue.

Even as humanity moves forward in its efforts to treat specific health threats around the planet, it’s depressing to think that the stuff we’re leaving behind us is becoming an ever-increasing part of the problem. Clearly, we need more trash to treasure converters like Albinsaid.

The customers are most decidedly non-WEIRD

I discovered this week that my idol is Blake Mycoskie. I didn’t know this on a conscious level; I had to take the Devex “What kind of do-gooder are you?” test to discover it. But it seems pretty accurate. I’m a fan of shoes and greatly respect TOMS.

Other things the test told me: “You have a business mind but you’re striving to make a difference in the world through corporate philanthropy and community contribution. You genuinely want to help those in developing countries, while at the same time making a profit for your company. Sometimes one motivation seems more present than the other, but they complement each other quite nicely. How do you accomplish this balancing act? Through corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.”

Most excitingly, I discovered that, as a “corporate do-gooder,” I’m “one of the hottest commodities in global development right now being both business-minded and passionate about making a difference in the world.” Yay me.

I’m clearly not in the sweet spot for those who designed this test – my prime do-good years are probably behind me – but it was revealing nonetheless. It seems like a great way to start a conversation between job seekers and providers. And, on a larger scale, to get more people interested in doing good.

Speaking of expanding the pool of do-gooders, that is precisely what was on the mind of Paul Currion, who wrote a hilarious piece on IRIN this week about why so many humanitarians are WEIRD. As in, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.

In other words, the majority of do-gooders kind of look and think alike.

This lack of diversity has consequences, according to Currion: “The result, noted by the 2015 World Development Report (WDR to its friends), is that ‘development professionals are not always good at predicting how poverty shapes mindsets,’ a phrase that maintains the World Bank’s position as gold medallists at the Understatement Olympics.”

And this: “WEIRD organisations will always struggle to understand the attitudes and behaviours of the non-WEIRD people that make up the rest of the world – as the WDR (disasters version) points out, ‘People do not behave in the way that disaster managers and institutions want – or expect – them to behave.’ … Meanwhile non-WEIRD organisations – the local responders who are often on the front lines – struggle to make their voices heard in a WEIRD humanitarian system.”

It’s a lesson that’s reinforced continually at NextBillion. Whether talking about disaster/emergency relief or altering supply chains or building any sustainable entrepreneurial venture, it’s all about the customer, who is most decidedly non-WEIRD.

In Case You Missed It … This Week on NextBillion

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A Better Way to Pay for R&D? (Part 2): Pilot projects designed to help get Health Impact Fund ’across the finish line’ By Kyle Poplin

The Avoidance Factor: Research in Indonesia reveals unique behavioral obstacles to microinsurance take-up By Nick Thornton

15 Years of The Tech Awards: A look back, a look forward from Smile Train By Leslie Zane

100 Million+ People Use Mobile Money Each Month: From P2P transfers to bill payments, here’s how they’re using it By Alix Murphy

’By making it available to people, you are almost by definition doing good’: Grameen Foundation CEO Alex Counts, on microfinance’s past and future By James Militzer

Why Financial Inclusion May Well Depend on Cyber ID Data: Digital IDs are quick and cost-effective – but more data on unbanked customers is needed By Stephen Ufford

Innovation to Impact: At Skoll, exploring why so many global health interventions have failed to expand beyond the pilot level By Nora Petty

Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.

Health Care