When First Mile started working in Haiti, the country was still reeling from the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of people were living in tent communities sprawled across the capital and the country’s spacious national landmarks.
At the time, First Mile — which helps global brands source materials from responsible supply chains in Haiti, Honduras and Taiwan — worked with a few recyclers in the country. One was Edouard Carrié, a young Haitian who at the time ran Environmental Cleaning Solutions S.A., a recycling company known as ECSSA.
A 2010 earthquake survivor, Carrié had been inspired to embark on an ambitious journey to get Haitians to start thinking about trash and recycling more seriously.
He turned out to be the perfect partner for First Mile.
“Post earthquake, our founder went down to Haiti to see what he could do to help and realized after many conversations with local Haitians, what they needed were jobs, not handouts,” said Kelsey Halling, head of partnerships for First Mile.
“We looked to the abundance of trash all over the roads as a source of assets to see what we could do about it and if we could create jobs out of this problem.”
To that end, First Mile partnered with Carrié to understand more about individual collectors and their needs. For both, the goal was cleaning up Haiti’s streets, while protecting the environment and creating income opportunities for locals.
Through Carrié’s work with First Mile, he was introduced to HP, the American manufacturer of software and computer services, and LaVergne, a Montreal-based recycling company. He would eventually work in tandem with them on their recycling efforts in Haiti.
“The vast number of trash and plastic ending up in the oceans is a worldwide problem,” said Carrié, who is now managing director of LaVergne Haiti. “It has the possibility to impact a significant part of our lives and we at LaVergne are doing our part to change that.”
About 15 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year, according to a report by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information. The plastic is blamed for “choking marine mammals, invading the guts of fish and seabirds, and posing unknown risks to the animals, and people, who eat them.”
“The plastics that have been put in the ocean since we began disposing of plastics in the oceans in the 1950s, much of that is still there,” said oceanographer Sylvia Earle during a Washington Post forum about climate change.
Earle, president and chairman of Mission Blue, an organization she founded to promote ocean conservation, added that plastics are so durable that even when they do break down, they still maintain their integrity as microplastics and nanoplastics.
“One of the situations we’re facing here in Haiti is that a majority of our trash ends up in the ocean,” Carrié said in an interview back in January. He was surrounded by mounds of plastic bottles neatly organized in massive tarp bags as he walked around the recycling plant in Croix des Bouquets. The plastic bottles were separated by color, with signs hanging above them labeled ‘PET Clear, PET Green, PET Mixed.’
“Geographically, Haiti is surrounded by mountains,” Carrié said. “So when it rains, as you can imagine, there’s a vast amount of trash and plastic materials ending up in the ocean.”
Seeing beyond the trash to opportunities for Haiti
In certain parts of Port-au-Prince, the streets overflow with so much trash that pedestrians and drivers often find themselves navigating around trash as they make their way across the city. In many places, roadside cooks and street vendors litter the sidewalks of public marketplaces with the entrails of recently killed poultry and the skins of freshly-peeled vegetables.
It’s common for passersby to casually toss plastic bottles and other remnants from their day onto the streets, simply because public garbage bins are hard to come across in the capital teeming with 2 million people. The resulting putrid smells, especially when the humidity is at its highest, buzzing insects and potential contamination are another story.
You see, among the litany of political, social and economic problems facing Haiti, trash pickup isn’t high on the priority list of issues to address. To put it mildly.
In many municipalities across the country, waste is managed on an individual basis without any government involvement. Virtually all garbage is disposed of in illegal dumps — such as canals, rivers, and the like or burned in the streets, contributing to pollution and emission of greenhouse gases.
Carrié and the teams at First Mile and HP, however, took on the mission of doing their part to address Haiti’s trash problem and prevent plastic from entering the ocean. They also aimed to produce a finished product and create economic opportunities for local Haitians.
They worked together to increase demand for plastics from international companies by formalizing what had been a largely informal industry.
“We knew that if we could bring in demand from global clients like HP, we could create jobs for struggling people, and focus on social impact programming within the informal collections space,” said Halling.
In 2016, HP, teamed up with Thread International, the First Mile Coalition, Timberland, Team Tassy, and ACOP, a Canada-based recycling trade group, to embark on a three-year recycling project. The initiative, which was part of the Clinton Global Initiative’s Commitment to Action plan, would allow HP to purchase recycled plastic made with raw materials collected at the Truitier landfill in Port-au-Prince.
Truitier Landfill: Boon or bust for families?
The Truitier landfill is home to some 2,000 people, 300 of them children who live and work there alongside their parents in the landfill, collecting and selling plastics. HP purchases plastic from 1,100 Truitier residents, who each earn 250 – 350 Haitian Gourdes (HG), roughly $2.50 to $3.50, per day. To put into context, a loaf of bread in Haiti is about 80 HG.
The earnings may come as a shock to some. After all, the disparity is part of a long standing debate among business leaders about low-cost labor and sourcing in supply chains and the ethics surrounding the practice. It’s an issue that First Mile and HP have not run away from however and are tackling by providing services and resources to supplement the collectors income.
As part of their efforts to give back to the community, HP provides a scholarship to every child under 15, while older teens receive remedial education and soft-skills training. The children also receive mentoring, food stipends and health care.
“We provide so many additional holistic programming and wraparound services because on $2.50 – $3.50 a day, there’s still a lot of essential needs that aren’t going to be covered by that,” Halling said.
Vivien Luk, executive director of Work, a nonprofit working in Port-au-Prince to help families out of poverty, partners with First Mile to develop and implement their wraparound services in Truitier.
“It’s going to take time to get [the collectors] to a living income status, or even a part time living income status. In the meantime we’ve removed some of the essential costs in their lives to help them with that,” Luk said.
“Things like open access to medical care is provided to all of our collectors, so that they don’t have to worry about not being able to afford care when they need it. Scholarships for the children are provided so that it can take that piece off as well,” she added.
The education program, which costs $350 per year per child, covers the full cost of tuition and “everything that’s required for them to be successful in school,” she said. “So uniforms, to transportation, to school, to school supplies, to breakfast, lunch and dinner so they have the proper nutrition to to study in class.”
HP and First Mile and their education program has cut instances of child labor in the landfiil by 75 percent, while their program has diverted 2.4 million pounds of ocean-bound plastics or 85 million plastic bottles since 2016. In 2020, HP received recycled content validations from UL verifying they indeed sourced materials from recycled ocean-bound plastic.
UL, a U.S.-based company, “helps companies demonstrate safety, enhance sustainability, strengthen security, deliver quality, manage risk and achieve regulatory compliance,” according to the company’s website. HP worked with the organization to audit suppliers to determine safe labor practices and risk mitigation for the recycled material collector in Haiti.
In between earthquakes, the work goes on
The most recent earthquake to hit Haiti left all of the collectors First Mile works with without homes and access to basic necessities. However, within a week of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake hitting Haiti’s southern region, First Mile and HP were able to locate 95% of their network and provide essential services, including access to food, clean water, medical attention and housing.
While Haiti’s persistent political and social environment, coupled with ongoing natural disaster, have deterred many companies from operating in Haiti, First Mile and HP are doubling down on their commitment to the country and the collectors they’re working with in Port-au-Prince.
“This isn’t the time to pause on any of our work,” Luk said. “Removing plastic out of landfills and the oceans and diverting them from those areas is key to this effort. However it’s not just environmental. Environmental justice requires social justice to be in place. We have to have both of those elements to work hand in hand for us to be able to divert as much waste out of the environment as possible.”
More to come in the next installment, where we’ll share how Carrié navigated around the pandemic to keep plastic bottles off of Haiti’s streets.