Litter4tokens presentation about the Circular Economy at Harvard

Waste not, want not: Grassroots participation, reward systems and change at end of the product life cycle

By Clare Swithenbank-Bowman, Litter4tokens Founder, and Taletha Derrington, Ph.D.

There is no denying the scale of the plastics problem globally. Every year more than 300 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide, half of which is designed for single use. Each year at from 5 to almost 13 million tons end up in the world’s oceans. These plastics soak up other pollutants in the ocean and break down into toxic chemicals and micro plastics that are eaten by sea life at all levels of the food chain (Barry, 2009).

The situation is compounded in developing countries, where there is often poor infrastructure to manage the scale of pollution and waste, poor monitoring systems and the burden of accepting waste from developed countries. Some places in the developing world are literally a dump. Jambeck and colleagues (2015) warn that without improving waste management infrastructure, the amount of plastic that could enter the ocean will increase by an order of magnitude by 2025.

Now, policy changes in the developing world, particularly Asia, seek to ensure that waste stays where it was generated. This is forcing countries to reconsider their thinking about waste in general.

This is especially true in Africa, where the waste problem is pressing, but there is also significant value in its upcycling, recycling and reuse. Developing countries tend to have thriving informal waste sectors that are particularly effective at finding treasure in another person’s trash. Regrettably, this is driven largely by poverty, unemployment, and the need to survive. However, people, communities, businesses, and government all benefit from the informal sector’s role in ensuring all the value of waste is not trashed.

There is a needed shift, says O’Neill, to view waste not as the end, but as a resource that can generate economic empowerment. That shift needs to happen at all tiers.
A small grassroots initiative in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa provides an example of what could be achieved in Africa, and across the world, to draw community attention and action to an issue, change community behaviour, and contribute to fixing the plastics and waste problem while addressing prevailing economic concerns.

This paper discusses this South African initiative in the context of the wider challenges around waste collection and management, while also exploring the many benefits of more circular thinking at the grassroots level, and how a rewards system could work to prompt change and make a difference. We make the case that local grassroots initiatives in developing countries that address poverty and pollution simultaneously are a viable and important building block to create a circular economy. We also identify other players and mechanisms needed to scale and sustain these type of initiatives to build a circular economy that can generate social, economic, and environmental benefit.

The Litter4Tokens Initiative

For people in extreme poverty, unless helping the environment can also help them, environmental concerns have far less weight than economic survival. However, there is tremendous grassroots potential for disadvantaged individuals to participate in a cycle of value creation, in effect, a circular economy that helps them and the environment. The challenges to achieving this goal include incentivising waste collection and management at a community level, increasing awareness of the plastics problem, and incentivizing behaviour change at an individual level. The Litter4Tokens initiative in KwaZulu-Natal was launched in 2015 to address these challenges and take steps towards installing a circular economy at the grassroots level.

In this model, people collect trash from their surroundings and exchange it for tokens at a local Token shop. These token shops are reliant on businesses funding as the rebates are minimal. Collectors redeem their tokens for basic needs such dry goods, toiletries, and clothes, supporting a disadvantaged community to access basic goods. Litter4Tokens provides social and environmental benefits through employing people, which gives them meaning and purpose and addresses the local waste problem as it put a value on litter. In 2019, over 3,600 collectors prevented 225,000 bags of recyclables, including plastic, tin, and cardboard from being dumped into the region’s rivers and ocean. This innovation provides environmental and societal benefits.


In developing countries like South Africa, no effective recycling is happening, and no collections are carried out in rural communities. Dumping waste in nearby rivers and ravines is the only option. This waste eventually ends up in our oceans. But it is not just the developing world.
Effective recycling is not happening in many developed countries including the U.S either. Most of their targeted recycling currently goes to landfills, although recycling vendors are contracted to collect properly separated waste.

Multinational corporates are major contributors to pollution in different countries across the world. Currently, recycled plastic, e-waste, or other types of refuse have limited value, so consumers and retailers have little incentive to recover used products for reuse or additional recycling. Such incentives are needed to stimulate a circular economy, which offers solutions to the environmental and social harm caused by pollution.

Litter4Tokens assigns monetary value to litter and has proven to be a viable way to maintain recycling systems in South Africa. However, these measures need reinforcement and alignment with other policies around enforcement and potentially taxation mechanisms to generate visibility, control, value, and sustainability – and a circular economy.


A circular economy is regenerative and restorative by design, keeping resources in use for as long as possible. Policies and systems that incentivize the production of products that are longer lasting and easier to repair, paired with incentives to take worn products back for repair or donation are important to establishing and sustaining a circular economy.

By recovering value from items that would otherwise go to waste, the circular economy improves resource productivity and competitiveness. Higher value comes from keeping things in working order. For example, in the UK, electronic and electrical goods are worth 50 percent more if they are sold for reuse rather than recycling. However, only 23 percent is suitable for reuse (in working order/repairable), and only two percent is currently reused.

Litter4Tokens uses business principles to achieve societal good and make a positive change in the South Africa. The model has the potential to inspire other circular economies, particularly in contexts where policies and systems are designed to also reduce unemployment and save consumers money.

Utilizing and implementing social campaigns like Litter4tokens are part of the solution, but they need to be supported through initiatives by all the industry players, as developing countries have little or no support from an infrastructure point of view.

A possible solution globally would be for leading corporate plastic producers in the world to raise the cost of virgin (new) plastic to incentivize manufacturers to buy recycled plastic instead. There is trillions of dollars of plastic sitting in landfill. Plastic producers would also need an incentive, such as support in getting a share in the recycling/reusing market. Both could stimulate the recycling economy and create the infrastructure for a circular economy. Non-governmental organizations like Litter4Tokens are on the ground, supporting communities to ensure the recycling is making its way back to manufacturers to reuse and recycle. However, we need support from the retail, production, and governmental sectors to create this circular economy.

Transitioning to a circular economy does not only amount to adjustments aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the linear economy. It also represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.


The Litter4Tokens initiative is helping advance the four goals of full employment: stability, economic growth, efficiency, and equity. Each goal, achieved by itself, improves the overall well-being of society. In addition, collectors feel a sense of pride from their hard work, their communities garner more respect, and the environment is cleaned up. This campaign is addressing climate change, global public health, and global poverty at the same time, offering a systemic solution component to ensure litter makes its way back to the retailers to reuse and make new products.

Such elegant but simple solution have the potential to address pollution coming from poor communities by empowering people to keep litter out of the rivers and oceans by employing and compensating them. To scale such innovations, it is imperative that retailers and commerce partners who supply goods support and fund token shops in other developing world communities to establish and sustain this type of circular economy that contributes to closing the waste loop.

However, we cannot do this alone. Litter4Tokens is a grassroots tool for sustainable development that could be scaled. We encourage all stakeholders representing the for-profit, not-for-profit, private sector, and governmental sectors to collaborate in system-building to eradicate poverty through models like ours supported by policy and financial infrastructure.