Environment Age no hindrance for young, award-winning eco-warrior

Age no hindrance for young, award-winning eco-warrior

South Africa's youth aren't waiting to be rescued – they're too busy saving the planet!

While Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg continues to make a global impact, South Africa’s own young eco-warriors are also making important inroads in the fight to protect the environment.

In Cape Town 10-year-old Rocco Da Silva – recipient of the PETCO 2019 Waste Reduction Youth Warrior award – is helping to free the city from environmental pollution and in Port Elizabeth budding scientist Shaziyah Laher, 16, has been recognised for her work to “prevent the world from becoming plastic soup”.

Shaziyah has developed an innovative solution to plastic pollution by inventing an organic and transparent biodegradable polymer – an eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags. Her invention uses organic ingredients to synthesize her plastic alternative.

“I’ve had a passion for the environment since I was very young. Growing up in a heavily polluted city made me truly value the importance of nature,” said Shaziyah, who completed Grade 11 at the Al Azhar Institute in Malabar in 2019.

“This alternative is functional, yet environmentally friendly because no harmful chemicals are used,” she said.

“Users can discard it without harming the environment or animals. If littered, it will biodegrade and no toxic chemicals will seep into the environment.”

Her work has been recognised locally and abroad thanks to her involvement in the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists earlier in 2019.

“I introduced my idea at the Eskom Expo where I received a gold medal, a Best Of category award and an opportunity to present my project at an international level in Phoenix, Arizona, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.”

At the Intel fair in May – seen as one of the largest pre-college science expos globally –  Shaziyah finished fourth in the chemistry category among 1,842 young scientists from around the world. 

[Further reading: Three young South Africans scoop prizes at international science fair]

Among her inspirations are PET plastic recycling organisation Petco and eco-activist Thunberg.

“I cannot help but be optimistic when I see the commitment of young people such as Greta around the world,” she said.

“If we are to solve the most pressing issues of our time, we need to draw inspiration from people like her to tap into the dynamism of youth movements, for they have the potential to disrupt inertia and be the most creative forces for social change through new and innovative projects.

“Gone are the days when teenagers are thought of as children. Today we are powerful leaders and innovators.”

Of the role Petco played in her life, Shaziyah said: “I have come across many organisations that strive to enhance our environment.

“From contributing to GDP [through job creation in the PET plastic recycling sector] to creating scores of new income opportunities, to keeping billions of PET bottles from ending up in landfills, Petco’s impact is far-reaching.

“I have learnt from Petco that good environmental practice requires us to use the least material to do the job required, then to reuse or recycle by recovering material or energy from products at the end of their life.”

As the incoming headgirl for 2020, Shaziyah plans to use her position as an opportunity to steer her school towards recycling.

“I am planning a huge campaign at my school where I will encourage my fellow pupils to recycle. I have a few ideas I would love to pursue, and I want to organise a clean-up committee so we can target public areas in our community and pick up all the debris which has been so carelessly littered.”