It’s bin day tomorrow, and so this evening I’ll be sorting my family’s waste for the week and rolling the bins out at the front of my house. From there on it’s more or less the council’s business. This is so normal that it’s easy to forget what a luxury it is to have your waste taken away and dealt with on your behalf.
In many parts of the world waste is dealt with more informally, by burning it or dumping it. But waste has value, and networks of waste pickers retrieve materials for resale, from metal to plastic to scraps of fabric. It’s dangerous and miserable work, but it can be surprisingly efficient. As Tearfund has argued, it’s a low tech version of the circular economy and should be valued as such. Better to bring health and safety, decent pay and dignity to waste pickers than to sweep the system away in favour of a more expensive and technology based solution.
The challenge for many developing world cities is to formalise waste processes and scale them up to keep up with rising consumption, a growing population, and increasing urbanisation. There’s a real need for innovative appropriate technologies, and the Afri-plastics challenge has been highlighting some promising approaches. They are giving awards to small businesses doing clever things with waste in Africa, and their site lists dozens of different projects. Here are five that demonstrate some interesting ways forward.
1. Recyplast in Cote d’Ivoire place plastic collection boxes in volunteer’s homes. People can use an app to find the nearest box and drop off their plastic, and users are rewarded with points that can be cashed out later. The company then sorts and processes the plastic for resale. It’s one of many companies that are taking advantage of Africa’s smartphone adoption rates to tackle waste.
2. Trash2Cash takes a similar approach in Nigeria, but with a specific benefit. They also use a digital platform to reward people for bringing in plastic, and have a network of pick-up points. But they reward users with healthcare vouchers, helping those on low incomes to access healthcare that would otherwise be unaffordable.
3. Teco2 is a small company in Burkina Faso that is finding a use for waste plastic and turning it into building materials. There are many such companies, making bricks, fencing, or paving slabs. Teco2 specialises in roof tiles and school benches, and depends on a team of women plastic pickers to bring in the materials for their recycled products.
4. Megagas in Kenya leverages waste plastic to solve another environmental problem – indoor air pollution. They use a cracking process to turn unsorted plastic waste into gas, which is then sold in bottles. This affordable cooking fuel often replaces wood burning, so as well as reducing pollution, it saves wood and reduces emissions from deforestation.
5. ScarabTech are also in the fuel business, but take a different approach. Rather than paying people to bring the waste to their processing plant, they bring their machines to the waste. Based in South Africa, they make small off-grid pyrolisis units that they call beetles. They can be delivered off the back of a lorry, and process plastics into a liquid fuel. The big benefit of their units is that they can be temporarily sited and used to clean up waste hot-spots, with the value created paying for the clean-up.
- Feature image by Nyancho Nwanri/Arete, Creative Commons.