Uganda’s Fort Portal City Takes Steps to Tackle Plastic Waste, as only Water Source Chocks

Fredrick Mugira, Bertha fellow

After failing to secure a job in his formal profession, Samuel Kiiza, a business administration graduate, turned to recycling plastic bottles in Uganda’s tourism city, Fort Portal.

Three years in his new profession, Kiiza confidently identifies himself as one of the inventors in the country, helping to remove plastic waste from the environment.

He has so far recycled over six tons of plastic waste picked by waste collectors, mainly from River Mpanga, bars, roadside, and dustbins in the city.

Samuel Kiiza making baskets out of plastic bottles

“Plastic bottles continue to threaten our environment because leaders have not yet realized how waste can be managed properly,” narrates Kiiza. He recycles used plastic bottles of soft drinkings into laundry baskets, garbage bins, flower pots, brooms, and pavers.

Currently, Kiiza makes an average of 10 laundry baskets daily and sells each at 15,000 shillings (4 USD). He has also embarked on a skills-transfer program training youths on how to recycle plastic bottles.

“We have trained over 100 youths. All youths willing to learn are welcome to our training program. After acquiring the skill, they can earn themselves money and simultaneously save the environment,” says Kiiza.

Kiiza says he wants to scale up his efforts by moving from the “manual” to the “machine” way of recycling the used plastic bottles but lacks the funds to procure equipment. He needs over 20,000 USD to purchase “simple equipment” and set up a warehouse for his business. He cites a “simple bottle crushing machine,” noting that he urgently needs one.

Up to 9.948 tons of plastic waste is uncollected in Uganda annually according to a 2021 study. 11 percent of this is in water bodies.

In the meantime, Kiiza has partnered with the Country Side Environmental Conservation Uganda,  a non-governmental organization, to set up plastic bottle collection centers at different strategic points in Fort Portal.

Tadeo Mwikiriza, the NGO’s program manager, says they buy clean, used plastic bottles from whoever delivers them at their office in Rwengoma Fort Portal.

“For every 200 plastic bottles delivered, we pay 3,000 shillings (0.8 USD). Several youths have embraced this and are now earning some good money,” notes Mwikiriza.

“Our target is to collect plastic bottles before they go into River Mpanga. We want to remove them before it takes them to Lake George, “notes Mwikiriza.

Some of the plastics collected from river Mpanga in Fort Portal city

Worldwide, most plastic enters lakes and oceans via rivers which carry it from inland sources.

According to a 2021 study, only nine percent of over 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced worldwide in the last six decades has been recycled.

Like in several developing countries, due to poor waste management, most plastic residues in Uganda remain in the environment, causing severe ecological challenges.

Jeconeous Musingwire, an environmental scientist with Uganda’s national environment watchdog-NEMA, calls for more community efforts to manage plastic wastes.

“Do not dump it. It harms your environment. Drop it somewhere where it can be picked and recycled,” urges Musingwire.

He calls for local community support for plastic recycling initiatives such as that of Kiiza, which he says “are helping to remove dangerous wastes from the environment.”

Fort Portal’s scourge of plastic pollution in River Mpanga

Mpanga River is a lifeline for over 60,000 people living within Fort Portal city and the neighboring areas. It traverses Uganda’s tourism city and flows into Lake George through Lake Edward and outs to Lake Albert through the Semliki River.

Fort Portal City’s hilly terrain “makes it more probable that uncontrolled plastics drain into this river (Mpanga),” according to the draft report on plastic waste transport from the Nile River and its major tributaries into the marine environment discussed at the Entebbe marine plastic pollution consultation workshop in April 2022.

Some of the plastic bottles and bags that have collected below the bridge on River Mpanga in Fort Portal city

The city of Fort Portal generates 28 metric tons of municipal solid waste per month; of this, 2.4 metric tons is plastic waste, according to the same report.

A large volume of plastic waste, primarily soft drink bottles, from Fort Portal city, drains into River Mpanga.

Mary Komuhimbo, a resident of Fort Portal, believes the existence of River Mpanga, the only significant water body that traverses Fort Portal City, “is threatened by plastic bottles.”

She says every time it rains, “a large volume of plastic bottles drains into River Mpanga,” which city dwellers depend on for domestic water.

Journalist Sunday Rogers estimates that “between 500 to 1000 plastic bottles from Fort Portal city are washed into River Mpanga daily.”

What are local leaders responsible for waste management doing?

Most parts of river Mpanga are shallow due to siltation resulting from plastic waste, mainly occurring during the rainy season. And also, there aren’t many waste bins on the streets of Fort portal city as they used to be.

They were withdrawn by the local authorities, who claimed that the waste bins were being misused by people who had made it a habit to dump in human waste instead of plastics.

Journalist Sunday Rogers says that in some cases, bodies of premature babies believed to have been aborted would also be found in these plastic waste bins.

In 2019, the King of Toro Oyo Kabamba Iguru launched a “save river Mpanga” campaign that targeted removing plastic bottles from the River. The King had planned to utilize the manpower of the King’s loyal subjects to carry out monthly inspections and maintenance of the River.

Through partners, the Kingdom had also built a plastic bottle incinerator. King Oyo commissioned this incinerator, hoping some plastic waste would be burnt there.

However, the incinerator was pulled down and destroyed by yet unidentified people a few weeks after it was commissioned. Now plastics are dumped into environment. Approximately 79% is dumped into the landfills or on the environment according to a 2021 study.

Richard Muhumuza, the mayor of Fort Portal city’s central division, acknowledges the city’s enormous challenge of poor plastic waste management that eventually ends up in River Mpanga.

He laments that previously they didn’t have enough funds for waste management, but this financial year, they have set aside 19 million shillings (5,135 USD) to conserve River Mpanga.

According to Muhumuza, part of the activities of maintaining River Mpanga include removing plastic bottles from the River and purchasing and keeping dustbins on the streets, among others.

River gangs as a solution to plastics in the River

The division has also established and deployed “river gangs to pick up used plastic bottles from the River,” according to Muhumuza.

A member of the Fort Portal River gang sorting some of the plastic bottles collected from the river.

The gangs are made up of strong young people and environmental volunteers who, after it rains, pick out floating plastic bottles from the River. They, in addition, cut the overgrown vegetation along the river banks.

According to Muhumuza,” this will help to restore the River to its original course.”

He also discloses that the division council has plans to recycle used plastic bottles.

“Our bigger plan is to establish a plastic recycling plant in Fort Portal. That way, we shall be saving our only one River from plastics and creating jobs for the youth employed in the plant,” narrates Muhumuza.

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