Birds circling above the waste dumping ground in Dandora and street children mark the site of the waste landfill site, 8 kilometers outside of Nairobi city. Each day thousands of waste pickers, scavenge through the 2000 metric tonnes arriving daily.
Top finds include high-density plastics, bottles, e-waste and metals. Companies such as Mr. Green Africa, see these waste pickers as today’s invisible heroes, and by trading in recyclable plastics, they have not only created recognised employment for many but also recycled more than 3000 tonnes of plastic.
However, there are too few operations like these because the market for recycled plastics is small and can be easily overwhelmed. As a consequence, the plan for Dandora is to turn waste into energy via a new incineration plant capable of producing 40 MW of electricity.
Liveable cities, such as Nairobi, will increasingly rely on excellent waste management operations, designed around people’s needs and the delivery of a safe and healthy environment. Good waste management is part of making cities more attractive for inward investment and attracting people to relocate.
But anyone living with the smells and hazards coming from landfill sites, open-pit burning and waterways clogged with litter and plastic waste knows, poor waste disposal can cancel out all the positive impacts of sparkling new buildings and roads.
Nairobi is no different. However, the combination of improvements in county waste management and the 2017 ban on single-use plastic bags, has significantly reduced the presence of plastics in the urban environment. But there are further steps that still need to be taken care of if Nairobi is to be known as a liveable city and center of innovation in sustainability.
Plastics are big business worldwide; by 2022 the market for manufactured plastic products is projected to exceed USD 2 trillion, mainly due to the high demand for textiles. Over the past four decades, global plastics production has more than quadrupled, and of the 9.2 billion tonnes produced, 6.3 billion tonnes have become waste. Of this, 12 percent has been incinerated, less than 10 percent recycled and nearly 80 percent either discarded or landfilled, meaning that 90.5 percent of plastics go unrecycled. This low recycling rate is because of the complexity of resin mixtures and the lack of information about the disposal of different plastics.
On the other hand, the negative impacts of plastics on the environment and society are also significant. The toxic chemicals which leach out of plastics are harmful to thousands of informal waste pickers. They also cause significant losses to maritime industries, damage infrastructure, and flood defenses, and contaminate water and the air we breathe.
Based on current trends, plastic production will contribute up to 17 percent of the global carbon budget and already contribute to losses of USD 500 to 2500 billion from the world’s marine ecosystems. And the growing quantities of discarded plastic waste are the outcome of multiple market failures, that reflect plummeting oil prices, leading to a dramatic decrease in the value of plastics and the price of virgin feedstocks, a throw-away culture, and people’s negative attitudes towards using recycled materials.
Companies are being forced to make tough decisions about whether recycling is still an economically viable option or not. Many consumer brands, including beverage companies, some of the largest sources of plastic pollution, could have difficulties meeting previous commitments to adopt more sustainable practices by replacing portions of their products with recycled plastic.
On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a stress test for the 4Rs – refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle – the principles for strategies to prevent plastics pollution, raising fears that reused or recycled plastic products may not be hygienic. Unfortunately, plastics have become indispensable during the pandemic, and in many places efforts to reduce the use of plastics are being rolled back as front-line workers have demanded greater supplies of personal protective equipment.
Conversely, there are African entrepreneurs and scientists who have been able to respond in more innovative ways more reflective of a circular economy. Peter Okwolo, for example, a co-founder of Takataka Plastics in Gulu, Uganda, took just one week to design, test, manufacture affordable COVID face shields using recycled plastic waste, and which are now being used in medical centers across the country. There are also emerging machine learning technologies coming on stream to help sort waste from different feedstocks for recycling and deliver high-quality inputs from mixed plastic waste.
Consumers often choose plastic products with harmful colorants and plasticizers, which are more expensive to recycle and more hazardous as waste. Removing these additives or replacing them with simpler and more homogenous molecules can make recycling easier. But potentially, the best solution is to replace fossil-fuel-based plastics, with bio-based plastics. Not only can biobased plastics emulate many of the features of plastic, such as their light weight, transparency, and flexibility, without harmful chemical additives, they can also deliver hygiene, biodegradability, and a new sustainable fashion and design culture.
Professor Irene Samy at the Nile University in Egypt has developed a unique alternative to plastic by turning dried shrimp cells into thin films of biodegradable plastic for eco-friendly grocery bags and packaging. By utilising chitosan – a material found in the shells of many crustaceans – her team has been able to produce a clear, thin plastic that is completely degradable in the environment.
Considering the large quantities of shrimp shell waste produced each year in Kenya, Strathmore Business School is now looking at chitosan-based plastic to drastically reduce plastic waste and create new markets for biobased plastics. Replacing synthetic polymers with a natural form of polylactic acid would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 800 million tonnes every year. Using biobased plastics in textiles would also dramatically reduce the concentration of microplastics in drinking water supplies, and coastal fisheries.
Thinking ahead to a post-COVID time, Nairobi could potentially focus on becoming a capital city with zero-plastic waste. Not only would urban life be enriched by a cleaner environment, but the use of biobased plastic materials produced locally would open up opportunities across the Kenyan economy for bio-waste to be processed into specific feedstocks for different plastic uses, especially in packaging.
To achieve such an outcome would require several steps to be taken. For example, building awareness about the benefits of a city with zero-plastic waste, and how to achieve it using realistic, alternative sources of materials. Creating the demand for biobased and recycled products by addressing pervasive psychological and behavioural barriers, such as the need for highly coloured packaging or the perception that reused or recycled products are unhygienic.
Investing in localised production facilities to deliver bio-based feedstocks and materials for manufacturing. Developing new business models for the collection and sorting of plastic waste, using local professionals to build trust in the safety of sorted waste and prepare clean, homogenous plastic streams for recyclers. Establishing new policy incentives that encourage circularity. For example, bans and fees have been able to shift some behaviours, but Kenyans could scale up sustainable plastic solutions through clear bioplastic and recycling labels and standards, and the use of taxes or fees on plastic products that use virgin fossil-fuel feedstocks, are expensive to recycle, or which cause environmental and health hazards.
Every piece of plastic discarded in our cities, whether it is a food packaging, cigarette ends, milk cartons, synthetic fabrics, baby wipes, and diapers, or personal care products, will eventually end up clogging our waterways and breaking up into microplastics, potentially harming our health and wellbeing. A zero-plastic waste future is one that will turn our cities into liveable spaces for everyone.
Article by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Faculty – Strathmore Institute for Public Policy and Governance (SIPPG). She is also the lead author for the UN Environment Global Assessment on Marine Litter and Plastics to be released early 2021.
Learn about the Strathmore Institute for Public Policy and Governance (SIPPG) here
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