“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.”

– Pablo Picasso


The title for today’s article was inspired by Nigerian artist Taiwo Owoyemi’s upcoming exhibition at DIDI Museum with the same heading. Taiwo believes that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure and nothing is ever truly useless. As an environmentalist, I resonate deeply with this ideology. When we look at nature, we see how everything has its place and use. The excreta from animals serve as fertilizer to the plants and soil. The leaves and barks that fall from trees are picked by birds and other animals to make shelter. The ecosystem is one unending circular system.

Human beings, however, lack this understanding. Their lack of understanding is evident in the amount of plastic PET bottles and rotten food that litter the roads. I have had conversations with people and listened to others, where some people simply lay sole blame on the government for the dirty state of many parts of our cities. I wonder if these people know that the government does not follow them everywhere, the government does not eat and dump this waste so recklessly in the oceans and throw it down drainage pipes and gutters at night. I want to shout, tell them that it is EVERYONE’S responsibility. That, like a body, every individual in the nation is expected to work to their capacity so that the whole body can function.

There is a very popular saying that I will paraphrase to explain my point: If every person sweeps the front of their house every time, the streets will be neat and tidy. This saying translates to the individual responsibility that is required of sanitation and environmental consciousness. If everyone can adopt this lifestyle, it would be wonderful, one can succeed in cleaning up his house and even extend the gesture to the next building or maybe focus on the street. Most importantly, we are keeping our waste out of the streets, gutters, canals and oceans.

A step further than properly disposing waste is reducing it. This brings me back to Taiwo’s exhibition coming up on May 9, 2021. Working aluminium cans in Repoussé art style, he tells a story of the human race and the choices we have had to make between what is perceived as valuable and trash. He was also inspired to make his statement through art because of the lackadaisical attitude the people he saw around had towards the environment. In his own words, ‘‘It is almost impossible for you not to see piles of trash scattered around the streets due to improper sanitary measures and societal behavioural patterns. This got me thinking years back about up-cycling. I investigated various options of junk as an alternative material in making artistic statements and I discovered the beauty in discarded aluminium soda cans.”

We need more Taiwos, which is why I am encouraged by the fact that many up-cycling and recycling agencies run by young people have begun to spring up, with a focus on plastic waste. These innovative minds have refused to conform to the ‘Not my responsibility’ attitude. Up-cycling in particular shifts the mindset of viewing things as waste to giving them value. This method is key to our development as a nation and one of the solutions to environmental pollution and economic evaluation. Imagine a way to reuse an item you acquired earlier for something better instead of spending more money in the market or throwing away. A lot of people have become comfortable with using single-use items and are becoming very comfortable with it, but it is the same single-use industry that contributes to environmental problems, for instance, plastic bottles and nylon bags. Up-cycling, however, limits that.

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In Africa, plastic bottles are recycled to park benches, clothing materials, brick for school buildings (in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire), tables, chairs, et cetera, and used paper is recycled into paper bags and cups by these newer, improved and very innovative young minds. Some artists have become great interior decorators by up-cycling rubber tyres into upholstery and other art pieces/interior decoration. These young artists and designers always have one thing in common and that is their vision of a better environment. Their motivations are littered streets and polluted air, oceans, rivers, their vision of a better environment. So, they lend their voice to fight for environmental and climate change through their talent. By action.

Environmental and climate change advocacy has been politicised, romanticised, debated, toyed with, and the list goes on. People make promises they cannot fulfil and the Internet takes a record of this in most cases. Countries assent to multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) they do not fulfil along the line and, come 2030, a lot of countries cannot still boast of clean and affordable energy as the SDGs expect to come to fruition. However, a lot has been going on around the world. It is important and quite remarkable that a lot of young people have become aware also and have lent their voice to environmental advocacy. A lot of schools in foreign countries have teachers who are environmental advocates teaching their pupils about how to measure their carbon footprint and reduce it, which home appliances to use and how long, and it is even depicted in some cartoons and animation and even how not to waste resources like water and food.

We have had lessons on sanitation for years in schools in the country but the most important aspect of such lessons is acting them out. That is why it is very important to laud these people who have revolutionised environmental responsibilities and climate change action.

The next most important thing about environmental activism, apart from action, is support. It is high time we supported these young innovators and artists turning trash into treasures, cleaning our streets and teaching us how to live well.

A visit to Taiwo’s art exhibition on Repoussé Assemblage Figures that will be on display at DIDI Museum, located at 175, Akin Adesola Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, featuring reformed aluminium cans, from the 9th to 16th of May, 2021, will be a step in the right direction.

World Earth Day was celebrated a few weeks back, and a lot of world leaders, scientists and environmental enthusiasts emphasized reduction. Reduction is key to the restoration of our ecosystems. If there is less want, there would be less waste and an even a lesser need for recycling. I believe we need to invest more in teaching people how to stop, stop using things they don’t need, buying clothes and gadgets they don’t need, when there are alternatives to their pressing need or want.   

As much as we celebrate recycling or up-cycling, at the centre of it all lies reduction. If we were all able to understand our environment better as we try to understand our personal lives, we would be closer to attaining responsibility as individuals in this world.