LSE’s Sylvia Chant looks at how the reinvention of drinks cans contributes womens’ livelihoods in the Gambia. This post originally appeared in Urban Vignettes.

Sylvia-CHANT-Recycling-tin-cans-for-cooking-pots-GAMBIA

In many urban contexts in the ‘Global South’, reinvention or renewal of waste conserves resources in addition to providing livelihoods.  Here in Fajara, The Gambia, empty cans of Coca Cola, Fanta, Sprite and the like are put to supremely imaginative use in their conversion to cooking utensils.  It may take the beating and smelting of around 100 tin cans to make a single cooking pot, but in being a vital addition to any household, such recycled products always have a ready market.

For elderly women whose access to capital and credit is parlous in the extreme, informal economic activities of this nature offer a lifeline to economic survival.  More generally, this process summons up the issues of ‘waste’ being a ‘dirty word’ in contexts where what one person disposes can be put to productive use by another.

But one should take care in romanticising the renewal of waste products for commercial use.  For the woman in the picture, a whole day (or more) may be spent collecting, crushing and melting the tin cans required for a single consumption good. In addition, she also needs to buy charcoal for the critical work of refashioning the metal.  That day is lost in terms of selling-on the product.  On top of this customers usually drive down the price, reducing profit margins to a bare minimum.

How different might such an enterprise be if there was official support in production and marketing under the auspices of ‘sustainable development’?  Recognising, harnessing and rewarding the ingenuity of people in ‘renewal’ at the grassroots should surely form part of development agendas in the future.

Sylvia Chant is Professor in Development Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).