They may be the scourge of cityscapes and the countryside and the bane of environmentalists, but discarded plastic bags have spawned a growing and lucrative cottage industry in Ivory Coast.
Thousands of men and women dubbed "manan-ferela" -- bag washers in the local Malinke language -- spend their days collecting and washing the sacks, which are recycled into brand new plastic objects "Made in Ivory Coast".
AdvertisementAs poverty grew, prices rose and the wealth gap widened following a 2002 foiled coup in this West African state, desperation bred initiative and potential was spotted in this modern detritus.
The political-military crisis has "considerably reduced supplies of polystyrene, a chemical component used in the manufacture of plastic objects, forcing up the cost of production," said city official Pascal Amichia.
But used plastic bags and packaging were everywhere; they just needed collecting to be reprocessed into the scarce raw material.
"In Abidjan, we've always had 'fanico' (the Malinke word for laundry washers), but today we talk more about 'manan-ferela'," said Amichia, as the number of people crouching to rinse their sacks at every possible water source in the economic capital has soared in recent years.
City officials estimate these workers wash two tonnes of material each day to sell to factories.
Many start their search at the Akouedo public dump on Abidjan's outskirts, the repository for some 3,000 tonnes of garbage produced daily by Abidjan's four million residents -- and more notoriously, one of the sites in 2006 where hundreds of tonnes of petrochemical waste from a foreign ship was dumped in a scandal that caused at least 15 deaths and poisoned 100,000 others.
-- We need to feed our families, despite the risk of contamination --
While much of the world is fighting to clamp down on the use of non-biodegradable bags, from Europe to China and even a few African states, Ivory Coast has not joined the drive. These environmental pollutants are sold and used everywhere, then tossed aside to blight the landscape.
This garbage, however, has created an employment niche for Ivorian poor, who account for 45 percent of the population according to UN figures.
The downside is it is often at the detriment to their own health.
Many "manan-ferela" head to the Yopougon industrial zone to rinse their sacks in huge gutters fed by factory waste water. Young girls standing knee-high in pools work from dawn to dusk, with no protection against industrial pollutants.
"We're working here to be able to feed our families, despite the risk of illness," said 16-year-old Aminata, her skirt hitched up around hips and her hair tucked under a scarf.
Once dry, the bags are compressed into balls, weighed and sold to factories, many of them Lebanese-owned.
"We pay 100 CFA francs (about 15 euro cents, 23 US cents) and resell it for twice that," said middle-man Sidibe Cheick-Ouma, who said he earns 1,50 CFA francs (2.20 euros, 3.50 dollars) a day.
The bags are then ground into powder used to manufacture objects, notably plastic kitchen utensils or tarpaulins used at parties, funerals or the other many gatherings that punctuate Ivorian life.
"The demand is high. Each day we can buy up to two million CFA francs of recycled merchandise," said an agent, who did not give his name, for a local Korean-owned factory called Kim-Plastics.
The snowballing business has spurred on some "manan-ferela" to seek venture capital to upgrade what so far has remained a cottage industry.
"We are now compiling the documents we need to obtain financial backing so we can buy a grinder which will give boost the value of our business," said Oumar Yeo, a representative for some of the "manan-ferela".
This financial aid will also be used to improve "the abominable working conditions," he added.
"The gutter waters contains chemical products, some toxic, but we have no choice but to go there anyway to make sure we have enough to eat," he sighed.
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