Kruger National Park waste recyclers help preserve their environment

Residents who live near the Kruger National Park have resorted to recycling to avoid climate change disasters.

The Kruger National Park. Picture: @SANParksKNP/Twitter

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK - With South Africans free from the restraints of the COVID-19 regulations, the rapid growth of visitors at the Kruger National Park has grown and it's showing, forcing South Africa’s most popular tourist destination to rethink how it manages waste.

Residents from Lilydale and Justicia in Mpumalanga have started a waste recycling project to keep areas in and around the nearly two million hectare reserve clean while making money to sustain their livelihoods in a community plagued by unemployment.

Eyewitness News was in the Kruger National Park to find out how the initiative between residents and South African National Parks (SANPArks) was responding to immediate problems and while taking future waste disposal needs into account.

It's a five-hour drive through the Lowveld where the roads kick up dust, thorn trees tangle and the pristine bushveld the size of Israel welcomes you with a familiar smell of untouched wilderness.

Finally, you’re through the gates - it’s only a matter of minutes and already you are greeted by herds of elephant, zebra, impala and range birds that make the Kruger National Park a world-renowned game reserve.

But a different story waits beyond the Kruger fence; as there’s a serious waste challenges around communities close to the park fence.

Heaps of litter and excessive dumping of bottles, plastics, tins and other harmful material have been scattered along the main road leading to the park gates, rivers and streams in the Bushbuckridge Municipality in Mpumalanga.

This has led to a collaborative effort between residents and the Swikoxeni Waste Recycling Project to create a safer and cleaner environment.

Operating in an open field a stone’s throw away from the Kruger, the site is a hub of activity, with volunteers sorting through recyclable waste. One of the main drivers of this project is glass; waste management director, Bethuel Mashele, explained why they do this.

“Look at what happened in KwaZulu-Natal. There was a flood because of climate change. But they will say I’m being controversial, but the waste took the lives of the people in KZN, were killed by the waste as it blocked their drainage system, so taking care of the waste means we are extending our life span,” Mashele said.

More than two million people live up against the park’s border and opportunities there are scarce; reclaiming glass bottles collected from both the community and the park generates at least R50,000 per month.

For waste reclaimer, Bongi Ubisi this opportunity has bought to reality the saying that "one man's trash is another man's treasure".

“The problem is that I quit school at an early age and after that I just wanted a job to provide for myself and my child,” he said.

This is the plight of the many people who make a living and feed their families by sifting through waste.
Sibusiso Mhlongo, who volunteers at the site, says that while he does not earn any money from recycling, he would much rather use his time to raise awareness on waste management.

“The main challenge we face in this community is joblessness, because most young people here are unemployed, so to avoid being idle, I am involved with this project,” Mhlongo said.

Undeniably, their waste collection activities reveal the full depth of poverty. While their story is indeed one of deprivation of the basic essentials of life, it is also a story of an inspirational collective agency.

Kruger National Park spokesperson Ike Phaahla told Eyewitness News that what threatened the ecosystem of a community ultimately threatened the park and its revered wildlife.

“I think waste and littering is a big problem in SA generally, but what we’ve seen with projects like waste recycling and the clean-up campaigns is that they help improve the quality of the water when it comes to the rivers, because what people forget is that you cannot close off the river and just have it within the Kruger National Park, we are part of an entire ecosystem from the villages, communities like in Mozambique where some of the rivers end up can also use the water,“ Phaahla said.

Beyond its exceptional beauty, the Kruger National Park remains one of the areas in the world that is well preserved and accessible but its conservation is not only imperative to wildlife but the surrounding communities and the thousands of human lives who benefit from its survival.