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Transition to circular economy will reduce plastics nightmare

By Stephen Muli | August 12th 2021
A section of River Ndarugu was completely clogged by plastic bottles near Lake Nakuru National park on June 5, 2021. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Every morning, Francisca Mwende and two other members of New Genesis, a community-based organisation in Mukuru in Nairobi County, set out into the expansive settlement in search of polythene bags.

In a day, they collect about 120 kilogrammes from dustbins, landfills and rivers, and delivers it to Vintz Plastics, a local recycler, who pays them for every kilogramme collected. This has become a source of livelihood for New Genesis, enabling them to meet their basic needs.

Upon receiving this waste, Vintz takes it through a rigorous recycling process whose end products include, amongst others, basins, jerricans, water tanks and plates. This collection of polythene waste is new for them, and has been enabled by a subsidy programme driven by the Kenya Producer Responsibility Organisation (KEPRO).

The programme, initiated by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), is one of the ways in which local manufacturers are accelerating the growth of the recycling economy in Kenya. Through incentives and subsidies, KEPRO aims to improve the growth, efficiency, and viability of the waste collection, sorting, and recycling sector.

With waste production standing at an estimated 20,000 tonnes a day, accelerating growth of the recycling economy in Kenya will play a key role in addressing the waste management menace.

Unfortunately, a substantial amount of this waste goes uncollected or is poorly disposed of due to a total lack of infrastructure, inefficiencies in existing systems and poor disposal services. The result of this is a significant proliferation of landfills and dumpsites as well as the burning of waste, which has negative impacts on health and air quality.

Solid waste management in Kenya is further compounded by indiscriminate littering and a lack of public awareness on sound waste management practices, such as segregation and disposal. This lack of environmental stewardship has created a poor attitude towards waste, where it is viewed as a menace instead of an economic opportunity to be exploited.

This means that we are losing out on a myriad of environmental, social and economic benefits, which will create value from waste through re-use, recycling and formalising the waste-pickers’ sector to improve livelihoods.

Benefits to be accrued from this approach include a clean environment, improved public health, production of energy, composting material, and gainful employment especially for youth and women.

There are also great opportunities for innovation in effective sustainable waste management. For example, Gjenge, a social enterprise in Nairobi, is using recycled plastics to produce paving blocks and tiles as well as manhole covers. On the manufacturing front, businesses driving this agenda include companies such as BAT, East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL) and Silafrica among others.

BAT, for example, has achieved a record of Zero Waste to Landfill in its waste management programme with the recycling rate currently at over 95 per cent. Silafrica is using recycled yoghurt cups to manufacture products such as returnable crates for agricultural use.

EABL, on the other hand, has invested in the installation of biomass boilers which will use sustainable fuel alternatives such as rice husks, thus reducing the company’s carbon emissions by 95 per cent.

Nevertheless, sustainable waste management will not be successful if we do not invest in waste reduction. The World Bank projects that the urban population in developing countries will generate 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal waste annually by the year 2030.  We must therefore, rethink product design in line with a circular economy model, characterised by sustainable production and consumption. Importantly, we must invest in waste management education and public awareness.

Finally, it will take collaboration between government, private sector and community members for this to succeed. We believe the government’s plan to implement Extended Producer Responsibility regulations and the National Sustainable Waste Management Bill, will advance Kenya towards a more sustainable and circular economy.

At KEPRO, we will continue to build the capability and capacity of players in the waste value chain in order to accelerate the conversion of waste management from the current linear system to a sustainable circular model.

Mr Muli is the chairman of the Recycling G4G Committee, KEPRO Board and the Head of Environment, Health and Safety at BAT Kenya.

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