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Real Genius


Real Genius
A sustainable future is possible. Here are some positive examples from around the world.


From pigs to paper

Laila has a job that earns her a decent living wage – making paper out of rags. This is a fairly recent development in the curious tale of the zebbaleen, Cairo's garbage collectors. It began when Coptic Christian farmers, driven to Cairo by rural poverty some 50 years ago, took to pig breeding. It was good business. There was no competition from Muslims and pigs could be fed very cheaply. On the city's trash in fact. In time, they realized that sorted garbage could be sold for a profit and the thriving community of pig breeders became garbage collectors. Today the 7,000 or so zebbaleen can be found in seven settlements dotting Cairo. Men and children do the collecting. Women and children sort out the mountains of garbage into neat piles of plastic, metal, glass and paper. Now the women also have their own rug- and paper-making enterprise. Everything is used up: rotting food is fed to the pigs, unusable waste is burned or turned into compost. The zebbaleen keep Cairo clean, picking up more than half the city’s 6,000 tonnes of garbage a day. But in spite of this civic function they are still unfairly viewed as rogues and thieves.1



Nature's calling

It's evening, a good time for fishing in the East Calcutta Marshes – which double up as the city's main sewerage system. This may sound unsavoury, but actually it’s remarkably clean, sustainable and efficient. Every day 20,000 people living and working here transform a third of the city's sewage and virtually all its domestic refuse into 20 tonnes of fish and 150 tonnes of vegetables. This is how it works. First, gangs of men, women and children comb through the city's main refuse dumps picking out anything with a recyclable value. What's left, a rotting mass of organic matter, is ideal for growing vegetables. A little further on are the East Calcutta Marshes, an intricate patchwork of canals, vegetable plots, rice paddies and fish-ponds covering 8,000 hectares. A third of the city's sewage enters the marshes. Some goes straight to the fish-ponds, where algae feed on it and transform it into edible protein for fish. The rest becomes compost for vegetables. The 23 million litres of polluted water that enters the ponds each day contain both sewage and industrial waste. But by the time the water leaves it is almost drinkable, water hyacinths leeching out heavy metals while other plants absorb grease and oil. Dr Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, executive engineer for the Calcutta Sanitary Authority, believes the system could be replicated in other countries where there is sun and poverty. But a lot of money is to be made by engineers and foreign companies selling sewerage systems to the Third World.

Attitudes to sewage are slowly changing in parts of the rich world. Engineers at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, Britain, have devised simple, small-scale, independent sewage plants which produce both garden compost and household energy.1,2



A ban on PVC is on the cards in a growing number of countries. The second most used plastic in the world, it is known to be a carcinogen and a hormone disrupter. It has been linked with feminization of fish, decreasing human sperm counts, breast-cancer increase in women, testicular cancer and genital malformation in men. It's also blamed for learning and behaviour disorders and immune-system dysfunction.

Both in production and in disposal by incineration, PVC releases dioxins – one of the 'dirty dozen' of persistent organic pollutants which accumulate in living tissues and can cause harm both to those immediately exposed and to succeeding generations. The Danish Government is looking to phase it out by the year 2000. The German city of Bonn plans to stop using it in public buildings. In Toronto, Canada, it can no longer be used to pipe water in specified areas. Official guidelines for building the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia say contractors should avoid using it. While the Belgian Government is considering subjecting it to an environment tax and even Britain has abandoned its plans to make its Millennium Dome out of the stuff.

Under pressure at home, some PVC manufacturers are looking for Third World markets. The Toronto-based Royal Plastics Group has reportedly received permission from the Chinese Government to manufacture, in Shanghai, houses made almost entirely of PVC. Greenpeace is campaigning for a worldwide ban, arguing that most uses of PVC plastics are avoidable right now. It suggests a wide range of alternatives including wood, vitrified clay, rubber, cork, concrete, iron, silicone, canvas and linoleum.3

For more information contact your local Greenpeace office (see Action section for details).



Advertisers may be spending millions coming up with cool images to sell their products. But a growing body of 'subvertisers' have their sharp wits ready to uncool them. The example featured here shows the carefree cartoon character used to sell Camel cigarettes in, well, a rather more realistic setting. The small-print reads: 'The surgeon general warns that cigarettes are sold by corporations who don't care if you live or die.' The subvertisement comes from the Canadian group Adbusters, which has made a fine art of taking on companies like Marlboro, Benetton, McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Calvin Klein – and beating them at their own game. Anti-consumerism is taking hold in various ways in many parts of the world with ten countries participating in the annual 'Buy Nothing Day', this year to be held on November 28 in the US, Canada, Aotearoa/NZ and Australia. 'No Shop' day in Britain, organized by the Manchester-based 'Enough' Campaign, will take place on November 29. The organizers manage to make 'no shopping' sound like a real treat – which it is!

See Action section for details and contacts.



Two birds, one stone

Chinese farmer Su Ling is proud of her vegetables. On the left are two beds growing with bright green leaves and thick, crisp stalks. In pitiful juxtaposition is a plot of vegetables with yellow blotchy leaves and thin stalks. The healthier crop was treated with a new type of organic fertilizer – partly derived from recycled rubbish – known as New Manor. The other was dressed with an ordinary chemical fertilizer. Research on the new organic fertilizer began in 1994. Its maker, Taishan Green Products Manufacturing Company, is now negotiating with local authorities to set up factories in Gansu, Liaoning and Sichuan provinces to recycle rubbish into fertilizer. Most of China's towns and cities are besieged with mounds of rubbish. Beijing produces 12,000 tonnes of it a day, with 1,080 garbage mounds scattered around the capital’s suburbs. Fertilizer from waste is nothing new in China. About 35 per cent of urban household refuse is separated and sold to farmers who rot it down in compost heaps to an organic soil conditioner-cum-fertilizer. But if it's not properly sorted it can be an un-nutritious hotchpotch.4

1 People and Planet Vol 4 No 1.
2 Sewage Solutions by Nick Grant, Mark Moodie and Chris Weedon , Centre for Alternative Technology Publications, Powys, Wales.
3 International Toxics Investigator 8.2.Greenpeace International.
4 Pan Xiaoying, Gemini News.

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