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ENVIRONMENT-KENYA: Turning Trash Into Cash

Justus Bahati Wanzala* - IPS/IFEJ

NAIROBI, Dec 19 2007 (IPS) - From carrier bags, to takeaway cutlery, to containers lining the aisles of grocery stores, plastic is found virtually everywhere in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi: for better and for worse. The widget that is useful in the first instance is likely to become a polluting eyesore after it gets tossed away, as the city struggles to come to grips with recycling its plastic.

Waste made useful: bags created from recycled plastic. Credit: Justus Bahati Wanzala

Waste made useful: bags created from recycled plastic. Credit: Justus Bahati Wanzala

According to the National Environment Management Authority, 225 of the 1,500 tonnes (or 15 percent) of solid waste collected daily in Nairobi consist of plastics.

However, the agency estimates that less that one percent of plastic waste in the country is recycled. Kenya for instance has only four firms that recycle, on a large scale, the widely-used thin plastic bags known locally as “flimsies”.

Mid 2007, government placed an extra tax on plastic bags. It also banned those made of material thinner than 30 microns (a micron is a thousandth of a millimetre), all in a bid to encourage the manufacture and use of thicker bags considered more likely to be re-used and recycled.

But, fears that the ban would cause heavy job losses in the plastic manufacturing industry have led to implementation of the measure being postponed to early next year. Official figures put unemployment in Kenya at 40 percent.

Amidst these developments, the Kayole Environmental Management Association (KEMA), a non-governmental group, is demonstrating that there are ways of conquering the plastic menace, and making money while doing so.

“We formed this organisation in 1999 to compliment Nairobi City Council efforts in solid waste management, and empower our youth by turning garbage into wealth through production of high quality and marketable products,” says Director Simon Munywe, noting that as authorities had failed to collect garbage, residents were resorting to dumping their rubbish indiscriminately. This led to an increase in waterborne diseases, and also opened the door to other health risks.

According to the KEMA website, 4,500 households subscribe to the association, which employs some 400 people to collect and recycle garbage from the suburbs and slums of eastern Nairobi.

These include young men, such as 19-year-old Michael Njoroge, who fled their homes to make a living on the streets.

“We wake up very early every morning and divide ourselves into groups to collect garbage from homes and neighborhood dumpsites, and transport it to a KEMA collection centre where we sort it for recycling,” says Njoroge, who can be found on the roads with a handcart as the sun rises.

According to Munywe, plastic has been re-used to create various goods, including “mattresses, pillows, cushions, lampshades, waste paper baskets, hats and handbags (and) termite-proof fencing posts…”

These posts – also roof tiles – are created by heating plastic of all varieties to about 120 degrees Celsius so that it melts. The liquid plastic is then scooped into post and tile moulds; a single fencing post requires 15 kilogrammes of plastic waste, says Munywe, and a roof tile five kilogrammes.

The tiles, he adds, are not brittle in the way that clay tiles are, and rain water harvested from them can be used for drinking. The fencing posts, meanwhile, are a useful alternative to wooden posts in a country battling deforestation.

Munywe says the recycled products are reasonably priced, putting them within reach of people who have difficulty making ends meet. According to the latest United Nations Human Development Report, 22.8 percent of Kenyans live on less than a dollar a day, and 58.3 percent on less than two dollars a day.

Biodegradable waste is also recycled – to make manure that is then sold to farmers – while metals are sold to scrap dealers.

KEMA also offers short courses on topics such as solid waste management, and making charcoal from material like sawdust – and has trained many Tanzanians and Ugandans, as well as Kenyans. Trainees are members of neighbourhood associations, youth and women’s groups.

“It is our intention to create employment for 3,000 people in Kenya by production of hand bags for local and foreign markets,” says Munywe.

But the association is faced with several challenges.

Subscribers sometimes fail to pay their garbage collection fees, approximately 50 U.S. cents per household, payable monthly.

Munywe says consumer wariness of recycled products also undermines sales of these goods. In addition, KEMA is grappling with the problem of making its goods fire-resistant and of minimising the toxic emissions given off while plastic waste is being heated. According to Munywe, the association is collaborating with government agencies, universities, research institutions and donors to explore technologies for recycling solid waste, particularly plastics.

Nonetheless, he adds, there is a marked improvement in the cleanliness of areas where KEMA is active.

Similar activities are being conducted by other groups.

In the vast slum of Kibera, said to be Africa’s largest informal settlement, several youth organisations collect plastic waste and use it to make shopping bags, table mats and shower curtains.

The groups include PAT Zero Waste, which has over 40 members, and exports its products to Canada and the United States – proving again that garbage isn’t rubbish, but rather money in disguise.

(* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS and IFEJ – the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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