Living in the U.S., we don’t often imagine recycling to be a privilege. After meeting Johnson Desauguste, a Haitian immigrant living in the U.S., I’ve begun to see it that way. As a junior environmental science major at UNC, I’ve been involved in many environmental organizations, and had some exposure to urban planning. Somehow, meeting Johnson (or “Blada,” as his Haitian family calls him) has changed my perspective on urban infrastructure.
Kay Blada Recycling (“Blada’s House” in Creole) is a non-profit that Blada founded to alleviate poverty and reduce pollution from plastic waste in Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and without a proper waste disposal program, plastic trash is thrown into the streets, polluting the air and the waterways. In many cases, plastic trash is even burned, releasing toxic fumes that have been known to cause miscarriages and malformations in newborns.
To address this problem, Blada created a startup called Kay Blada, a recycling project that focuses on the recycling of plastic bottles. Every day, locals set out into the busy streets of Hinche, a small town in Haiti, to collect plastic waste off the streets. A majority of Kay Blada’s participants are women above the age of fifty, trying to support their families. They pick up any kind of plastic material, ranging from soda bottles to lawn chairs and takeout containers, and bring the sacks of plastic to Kay Blada’s warehouse. There, an employee weighs the plastic and pays the collector by the pound. For most of the people that collect plastic for Kay Blada, this small payment is their only source of income. Each collector makes about five cents per pound, depending on the type of plastic they deliver. This small cash payment is enough to buy a meal for the day or send their children to school. (Unfortunately, education is not free in Haiti.) The employees at the warehouse then sort, clean, and package the plastic to be sold to a recycling company in Port-au-Prince, where it is repurposed.
Improving quality of life in Haiti is a cause very close to Blada’s heart. He grew up in Haiti, and moved to North Carolina with his wife several years ago. He founded Kay Blada over the phone from Snow Camp, North Carolina, with no more than a high school education, a basic understanding of English, and very little cash in his pockets. When I met him, he was still learning how to email. Since then, he has grown his startup to employ more than 65 Haitians, and the women involved have picked up 65,000 pounds of plastic off the streets of Hinche, an amount equivalent to the weight of about 22 Nissan sedans. He has also begun working with teachers around the United States to develop programs to teach environmental responsibility in Haitian elementary schools, and is focusing on advocating for recycling throughout Hinche over radio programs. For Blada, this initiative is about providing employment, reducing plastic waste, and empowering the people of Haiti.
Unfortunately, many of the problems Blada faces stem from poor urban infrastructure. The Haitian government provides no waste disposal program, leading citizens to throw their trash on the street, where it is collected into piles and burned. When Blada tries to transport his plastic to Port-au-Prince to be recycled, the 70-mile trip takes 3 hours, a result of the poor road quality. A majority of the roads from Hinche to Port-au-Prince are not paved. As if these barriers were not significant enough, the facility where Blada collects the plastic also has no power. Most of Hinche is not connected to the grid, and when he approached his local government to request electricity for his business, he was told that it would take months to find him an electrical meter. If he did eventually get off the waitlist, he would have to pay for and perform the electrical installation himself. Electricity is vital for Kay Blada because Blada recently purchased a baler, a machine that compresses plastic into cubes to make it easier to transport. Without electricity, it sits in his warehouse, unused. However, even if the facility was able to connect to the grid, the power is only on about a third of the time, and at random hours.
Working as a student consultant for Kay Blada, I had an idea to rectify this problem. I contacted United Solar Initiative, another campus non-profit that donates solar panels to rural communities with no access to electricity. I was thrilled when USI expressed interest in partnering with Kay Blada to install solar panels on the warehouse in Haiti. The panels are scheduled to be installed in January, and will power the baler, as well as a computer and LED lights so that the warehouse can stay open later. Kay Blada recently held a benefit concert on October 6th at UNC to support the cause and raise money for the installation.
Although we were able to overcome our lack of access to the grid, the infrastructural problems that Kay Blada and other businesses in Haiti face are enormous. Without improvements in waste disposal programs, public health, and access to paved roads and clean water, relief programs will continue to struggle to make a lasting impact in Haiti.
To learn more about the work that Kay Blada does, please visit our website or watch our promotional video, available here.
Featured Image: Kay Blada employees at the plastic collection facility. Photo source: Johnson Desauguste
About the author: Erin Danford is a junior environmental science major and geography minor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She works as a student data analyst at the Environmental Finance Center, and is now co-president of UNC’s chapter of Kay Blada Recycling. This is her second year working with Johnson Desauguste on this Haitian recycling project, and she has greatly enjoyed the opportunity to work one-on-one with such an influential non-profit.