I’m going to begin by asking two seemingly unrelated questions but bear with me - the unapparent but very close connection will be revealed during the course of this article
Q1) Why does Botswana scarcely produce anything?
Q2) Why is the nation so addicted to fried chicken?
In numerical order it’s quite astonishing that this country has virtually no manufacturing industry. It has a fairly robust economy, particularly in sub-Saharan continental terms, and government and parastatal institutions whose primary purview is to encourage national growth and investment. It has the potential manpower, with unemployment a perennial problem and an untapped workforce of unskilled or semi-skilled labourers. It has available land on which to build large factories and the infrastructure, both existing and planned, to export goods to a wider market and yet it remains principally an importer. Exports are still largely confined to beef and diamonds, a status virtually unchanged for decades.
There was once a car assembly plant but that collapsed in a sea of debt and rumours of dirty dealing years ago, leaving us with a local soap factory, a plastics industry and very little else.
Moving on to the second question, there is now a global addiction to fast food, attributed variously to its easy availability, a reluctance or inability in the current generation to prepare and cook food at home and of course the built-in addictiveness of the food itself, a dependence which arises from its sugar, salt, monosodium glutamate and other craving-linked additives. And Botswana, once largely immune, owing to its few fast-food outlets, has now succumbed, drowning, as it is, in a sea of burger, chicken and pizza chain franchised stores, most of which offer delivery services and at least one of which boasts 24/7 opening. Our local malls are stuffed to the rafters, if you’ll excuse the pun, with punters feeding their faces at sit-down junk-food shops – I cannot bring myself to dignify them with the title of ‘restaurants’ – at all hours of the day and night, whole families passing on their addiction to their children and their children’s children. Even here, there is a burgeoning (again, excuse the pun), obesity epidemic amongst middle-class children, offered this food, not as an occasional treat but as part of their regular unbalanced diet.
And what I find most curious is that the problem is not limited to those who can afford it but has spread to those who probably can’t and shouldn’t be spending their money like that, seemingly happy to shell out 40 or 50 pula on a chicken burger and chips for one, when for the same amount of money they could buy an entire chicken and a kilo of potatoes which would go round the whole family – go figure. For a barometer of how bad this addiction is, you only have to look at Game City where outside on entrance there are two competing take-away outlets right opposite each other, each presumably making enough money to pay rent, salaries and still rake in a profit.
That’s the background to the article and here’s the (pun alert again) meat and the link – plastic. The world is finally beginning to wake up to the fact that it has created an indestructible product which is poisonous, unsightly, harmful to humans and wildlife and more of a curse than it was ever a blessing. Some countries have introduced strict recycling regulations governing the disposal of domestic and commercial plastic waste which, though admirable, at present only marshal the waste into designated centres, since much is unable to be recycled and thus can only be buried in deep pits where it will take hundreds of years to decompose. Sadly, much of the world’s discarded plastics end up in the ocean causing havoc and harm to sea life and even more alarmingly, ending up as human consumption through trace elements in the fish and seafood we eat.
Back to our own plastic manufacturing industry. The term ‘plastic’ refers to all materials of plasticized, chemical composition, ergo polystyrene is also a plastic. And what is the country’s daily tonnage of fried chicken and burgers mainly served in? You’ve got it – polystyrene containers, single use plastics, poorly-disposed of, most often simply discarded on the street or in the bush with no thought whatsoever to the environmental and legacy consequences, along with the single-use plastic cutlery so conveniently provided by the fast food outlets.
Hard, then to wear a sense of national pride that all those polystyrene containers, plastic cutlery and even the plastic bags used to transport all that junk food is
home-made while they’re lying around in an unsightly mess and adversely affecting the health of our wildlife and free-roaming cattle.
There is an alternative available. It’s made from bamboo – a member of the grass family – looks and functions the same as its artificial forebear but is completely compostable – bamboo containers, cups and cutlery which, when disposed of, will not only break down in soil but actually add nutrients and improve soil quality. The only drawback is the slight increase in cost, an increase which of course large fast-food companies and franchise outlets are unwilling to bear which is why government intervention and robust regulation would be needed to force owners and operators to comply. It is happening in other countries but not here, as yet.
Curiously, there is one global body which is taking a lead in this without any legislative prompting and that is the airline industry. In January this year Portuguese carrier HiFly took its first flight completely free of single-use plastic items, with the goal of eliminating all disposable plastics in 2019. Items were replaced with those made from biodegradable bamboo on the flights from Lisbon to Natale, Brazil. Containers were made from compostable materials, while non-plastic cups and cocktail stirrers were used. The airline plans to do two more test flights before implementing the plastic ban system-wide.
“We can no longer ignore the impact plastic contamination has on ecosystems, as well as on human health,” Hi Fly president Paulo Mirpuri said .“We know, too, from the feedback we have received from client airlines and passengers, that it’s the right thing for the airline to be doing.”
Other carriers are following suit. Increasingly aware of public dismay over the toxic tide of plastic, Delta Airlines, Air New Zealand,. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Australia and United Airlines are among those pledging to phase out single-use plastics and even budget airline Ryanair has committed to eliminating all non-recyclable plastics by 2023, switching instead to wooden cutlery and biodegradable coffee cups. In addition, one of Britain’s biggest tour operators, Thomas Cook, said in November 2018 that it would remove around 70 million single-use plastic items—enough to fill 3,500 suitcases—from domestic operations, planes and branded hotels during the next year.
Some cruise ships and hotel chains are making similar commitments which begs the question, with tourism such a major part of Botswana’s economy, when will the industry and relevant ministries wake up to the growing local problem and the negative impact the country’s plastic waste is having on wildlife and the environment and act to implement or encourage similar withdrawals here? Personally I wouldn’t mind if they closed some of the fried chicken outlets too – after all, they do sell ‘plastic’ food, but somehow I suspect that’s probably a wish too far.
The ‘plastic fantastic’ belief has long gone and quite right too – after all, it’s only natural.