Through community empowerment, recycling, and education, Blada Johnson is alleviating poverty and cleaning up the streets of Haiti.
By Ben Rappaport
All photos courtesy of Kay Blada Recycling
Plastic is one of mankind’s most impactful inventions. The versatile and malleable substance is made into virtually anything and is found in everyday objects from milk cartons to grocery bags. However, it also poses a major threat to human health and natural ecosystems. This threat is especially prevalent for poorer countries who lack the infrastructure to combat the growing crisis of plastic waste and pollution.
One of the countries overrun by plastic pollution is Haiti. Desaguste “Blada” Johnson was dismayed seeing plastic and other garbage crowding the streets and flowing into the waterways is commonplace throughout his country. That distress was also a source of inspiration for Kay Blada Recycling, Johnson’s non-profit to reduce this plastic pollution.
Without a reliable waste disposal program, plastic trash is often thrown onto the streets and into the canals in Haiti, polluting the drinking water. Piles of trash are sometimes burned in the streets, releasing toxic fumes, and threatening public health.
Kay Blada Recycling does more than clean up the streets–it puts people to work. Each day, people collect plastic from the streets, which Kay Blada buys and then transports to a local company that processes the plastic waste so it can be remanufactured into new products.
As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the income collectors receive from the cleanups is vital to their livelihood. For many of the Haitian collectors, this money is the only way they can afford to send their children to school.
This business model feeds directly into the three core values of Kay Blada: clean up the environment, empower the community, and provide local jobs.
Johnson grew up in the village of Hinche in central Haiti. The village has a population of 50,000 people and is about 70 miles northeast of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Hinche also has limited access to the internet and smartphones so much of the communications and news is received via radios and television. Johnson constantly saw the plastic pollution on the streets. He also noticed another issue: people leaving his beloved hometown in pursuit of a better life because of lacking employment.
“People became reliant on this diaspora,” Johnson said. “One of the main reasons for that is the lack of employment.”
The diaspora Johnson refers to also means that those who do get out of Haiti are expected to give back to their community to keep their families and loved ones financially afloat. He was one of the people who eventually did move out when he came to the University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill for college. After graduating, Johnson did not have much for himself, let alone money to send to his community back home.
“I didn’t think that I would have enough resources to keep providing people with money,” Johnson said. “I told myself I will save up to make a bigger impact in my home community.”
When Johnson finally did save up the money in 2015, he invested in Kay Blada. That spirit of giving back is a major part of who Johnson is and the impact he wants to leave.
“I always want to contribute my knowledge and efforts in the community to make a positive change,” Johnson said.
The education and experiences Johnson had while in North Carolina were also invaluable to Kay Blada’s founding. He saw what a clean environment could look like and was inspired to bring that waste management infrastructure to his hometown.
Struggles at the Start
The launching of Kay Blada was wrought with risks and challenges. While the company started their collections of plastic waste in 2015, they did not achieve official 501(c)(3) status, the official tax code for nonprofits, until late 2017. During those first two years, Johnson was the entire funding for his initiative.
“I always thought I would do something from my own pocket,” Johnson said. “But it quickly became clear that I couldn’t do that for a long time.”
Now the company has several donors who firmly believe in the mission of Kay Blada and see the importance in waste management in creating a cleaner environment, especially in a country that lacks the public infrastructure to make that happen.
Johnson still invests a large portion of his own income into the company, but over the past four years he has established a U.S. Board of Directors and hired 65 Haitian street collectors. The board helps manage donors, maintain their legal status, and attend meetings while the collectors are on the ground in Haiti making sure things run smoothly.
It has not been easy to make a substantial impact in Haiti because so many people are uneducated about the harms of plastic waste. This lack of understanding also makes implementing a new system to care and handle waste more difficult. But progress is made one step at a time. While Kay Blada has consistent and ongoing struggles, it is also always finding ways to grow and improve.
Problems of Plastic
The reason Johnson puts so much of his time and energy into Kay Blada is because the need in Haiti is so great.
With no strong national waste management system, the plastic waste just gets burned or thrown onto the street. Plastic is often piled up on the street and burned in the open air with little to no control of the process.
Unbeknownst to many Haitians, this burning of plastic is releasing toxic fumes and microplastics into the air. According to MIT, this burning can release hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals; all of which can cause respiratory, chronic headaches and immune problems. Johnson said he has heard complaints of all of these problems from his friends and family in Haiti.
The burning of plastics in Haiti is done as a means for waste removal and for starting cooking fires. The latter usage is especially problematic because it means melted microplastics contaminate food to be ingested by vulnerable populations, including children. Eating microplastics has also been shown to have adverse health effects, according to a John Hopkins University study.
Moreover, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these chemicals can cause birth defects, a tragedy Johnson said he has seen too often. Johnson’s wife is a doula in Haiti and he said she has seen issues of miscarriages, preeclampsia, and other pregnancy complications increased in recent years. She believes the correlation is not a coincidence.
If the waste is not burned, it is often left on the ground and eventually swept by rain into waterways. Since Haiti is an island nation, waste in their local waterways also means waste in the neighboring Carribean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean.
Even if some of the waste does not wash into the main waterways, it can often clog up local canals. This is a twofold problem because now the source of drinking water is polluted and the water levels are raised from all the waste in the canal. Meaning that even normal rainfall can cause flooding.
“When it rains you always want to take off your shoes and carry them in your hand,” Johnson said about the rains in his hometown of Hinche. “The water gets so high that it’s over the bridges and into people’s houses.”
When he was young, Johnson explained, rivers and canals used to be places of recreation and play for him and his friends. Nowadays, those same rivers are full of garbage. Fishing is also nearly impossible because the pollution has caused many of the fish to die out.
But Kay Blada is still a relatively young and small organization. They currently collect about 10,000 pounds of plastic waste per month, which is a fraction of what’s needed on the island.
“We want to attack with a stronger bite to balance out the recycling scale as much as we can,” Johnson said.
The Impact: Educating to Change
The blame for the harm plastic has brought to Haiti cannot be placed on the people, Johnson said. The problem is a lacking waste system from the public sector and a massive influx of packaged foods into the Haitian diet. Without proper education about the harm plastics cause to human health, what can one expect from them?
The responsibility of educating people about the importance of recycling and the harms of plastic use is something Johnson and Kay Blada have also undertaken. The company provides educational materials to local schools through the Kay Blada Environmental Education Program. This program shows younger generations what the waste is doing to them and how to properly manage it. Starting in 2016, 25 teachers in Hinche received monthly environmental education materials and stipends to incorporate environmental material into their lesson plans. This program currently serves 2,000 students across six schools in Hinche.
“It’s truly an honor,” Johnson said. “All of our teachers are so grateful for this program. I am so glad we get to bring this material back to life.”
The schools also have their own recycling programs with plastic waste that is processed in Kay Blada’s recycling center. That material is then sold to larger recycling companies in Haiti where it is made into goods. Students in the Kay Blada Environmental Education Program also take field trips to the recycling center to get a deeper understanding of recycling and its importance.
“If we can better educate people about the environment, they will make better decisions about how they protect nature,” Johnson said. “The kids are the future, focus on them.”
Johnson sees himself as part of the larger climate solution conversation because of their education initiative. Working with younger generations is what inspires Johnson because they embrace behavioral change and new ways of living.
“The kids that go through our program know that waste they put in the recycling bin isn’t going in the burn pile or next to the river,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be recycled. That’s very powerful.”
Kay Blada’s education program has been successful and prior to COVID-19, they were on track to double this program by 2021.
One of the main focuses of Kay Blada is employing the locals to empower them and keep the community of Hinche strong. Rather than the diaspora sending young adults away,Blada Johnson is strengthening his community’s roots and empowering the community through recycling.
“We want to bring in more and more people so they can sustain themselves,” Johnson said.
COVID-19 has brought struggles to Kay Blada’s aim of local employment but they remained steadfast. So far, Kay Blada continues to provide employment to all of its employees and teachers with no cuts to their wages. In spite of their financial hardship and extreme decreases in donations, Johnson sees giving these people a sustainable living as a non-negotiable.
“Our staff depend on us for their livelihood. We are very proud to have been able to continue to stay true to our mission, even in a global pandemic,” Johnson said.
The pandemic also caused the cost of supplies for plastic collections to increase and an inability to transport materials to Kay Blada’s main plastic buyers. That means all of the materials collected have had to be stored in-house over the past five months. Kay Blada is still doing collections during the pandemic following strict sanitation and social distancing guidelines.
The Next Step in the Cycle
In the future, Johnson hopes he doesn’t have to ship the recycled materials overseas. He hopes Kay Blada can do the whole process from collection to re-manufacturing recycled goods from the plastic. Shipping the products leaves a large carbon footprint and has a steep fiscal cost. Producing locally would also allow Kay Blada to employ more people and further empower the community. Johnson is seeking to take out the middleman in a way that is productive for the local economy.
Johnson aims to grow their funding to eventually create a durable waste management system throughout Haiti. As the company looks to expand beyond Hinche, Johnson hopes to set an example for the rest of the developing world. To let people know the importance of waste management and community empowerment, even if the answer isn’t clearly spelled out.
Blada is deeply committed to the mission of his company and speaking with him revealed his deep passion for what his company is set out to do. While the path has not always been easy for him, his thoughtfulness and patience are the qualities that will make his company thrive. The name Kay Blada is Creole, the language of Haiti. It directly translates to Blada’s Home. This spirit of community, comradery, cleanliness, and education are all things Blada wants to give to his home. The people benefitting from Kay Blada’s services are Johnson’s neighbors, friends, and family–he is proud of the home he has helped create in Hinche and beyond.
To learn more and donate visit https://www.kayblada.com/donate