By Vanessa Akoth
The versatility of plastic material in the society today makes it a largely produced packaging commodity around the world, with Kenya’s daily plastic consumption being estimated to 0.03kg per person, according to Kenya National Guidance for plastic pollution hotspotting and shaping action report.
Exceeding a total population of 4 million, as established in 2019 Census by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Nairobi is a haven of more plastic waste than any other urban city in the country.
Nairobi’s plastic annual plastic waste totals to an average of 143,123 tons, closely followed by Nakuru, Mombasa and Kisumu, producing 23,324, 19,915 and Kisumu 11,999 tons respectively.
Out of the thousands tons of plastics consumed in Nairobi, only 45% is reused and recycled to a form that can yield ecological and economic benefits to the country.
The main forms of plastic packaging produced and used in Kenya are the polyethylene High Density Polyethylene, Low Density Polyethylene Polypropylene Polyethylene Terephthalate, Polyvinyl Chloride and Polystyrene
Plastic, unlike other household wastes, does not decompose as they are largely composed of carbon-based compounds. Due to this inorganic nature, plastic trash has a greater potential to harm the environment, wildlife and humans than organic other wastes.
In 2019 for instance, plastic trash blocked ridges of Nairobi’s Ngong River causing it to burst its banks, resulting into flooding of the surrounding areas. The natural disaster interrupted activities of food traders and residents operating along and around the river. Other rivers choking with poorly disposed plastic waste in thecity, include the Nairobi River and Mbagathi River.
Due to lack of a proper plan to dispose and manage plastic waste in the city and its households, plastic pollution continues to be a problem difficult to alleviate, with most people unaware and ignorant of the damage this material causes to the environment.
Residents of Nairobi can now sigh in relief as an eco-friendly way of disposing plastic waste spearheaded by Mr. Green Africa has been established. The company, which is the brainchild of Keiran Smith, has set up an initiative geared towards eradicating pollution caused by plastics in Nairobi through recycling of plastic waste.
Since its inception in 2016, the company has set up major plastic drop-off points (shops) in Kibra, Dandora, Ngong Road, Kayole, Dagorretti, Pipeline and Kawangware residential areas, among other locations in the Nairobi County. The locality of their shops makes plastic collection dependable as they are centrally placed in slum settlements where there aren’t landfill sites which facilitate the collection process.
This initiative has not only revolutionized the process of collection and recycling of plastics but also created job opportunities for people of all ages, who work as informal waste collectors, having been incorporated into the value chain.
In Kibra, Kenya’s largest slum located in Nairobi, is one of the largest drop-off points by the initiative. The shop has capacity to collect and hold about 1.5 tonnes of plastic waste per week. This facility allows bulk disposal of post-consumer plastic materials from large scale plastic collectors. It is run by two operators who receive the waste, issue payments to collectors and take stock of plastic waste coming in daily.
Kennedy Mutiso, one of the ground operators in Kibra, says that the room takes five days to a week to completely fill with the collected plastic wastes. The number of pickers delivering plastic trash daily, ranges between 10-15 individual collectors, he says, adding that they only attend to adults of 18 years old and above and not minors. “These collectors are mainly residents of this slum area,” Kennedy.
Philip, a former street boy turned an informal waste collector for Mr Green Africa Initiative, got to know about the Initiative from a poster advertisement circulating around Lindi area of Kibra in 2017.
Then, he was homeless and was dependent on begging proceeds for survival. “I decided to take on the opportunity since at the time I was also desperately looking for something to do to get myself off the streets,” Philip said.
“It took me time to learn more about the types of plastic required but I am now a pro and I like my job,” he says. “The plastic waste I collect are mainly sourced from around the informal settlements in Kibra and the drainage systems by the roadsides, where most residents dispose their trash,” he revealed.
In a good day he is able to earn Ksh. 500 by delivering 21kg of plastic waste to the drop-off point.
Dennis Kamau, unlike Philip, is a large scale collector of plastic wastes. He accumulates plastics collected over a span of three days and delivers them to the drop-off point in bulk.
“I began this collection process as a side hustle to make extra income after hearing of this from a friend,” he says. “One thing most people don’t know is that plastic waste collection is a lucrative venture as plastics are everywhere and all one needs to do is pick, deliver them to the drop-off point and get paid,” he noted.
Kamau delivers at least 250 kg of plastics to the Kibra shop twice a week from which he earns roughly Ksh.14, 000.
He sources his plastics majorly from dumpsites, including the Dandora waste dump. Out of his earnings, he says, he has been able to fend for his family and has set up a retail shop for his wife.
The amount paid to plastic collectors varies in terms of whether one delivers in bulk or small quantity. An informal waste collector delivering to the facility in bulk is paid Ksh.29 per kilogram of plastic waste while a collector delivering in small quantity is paid Ksh. 24 per Kilogram of plastic waste delivered.
Apart from the cash made by collectors also comes accumulation of points depending on the amount in Kilograms of plastics delivered to the facility. “Once you garner 50 points and above from plastic collection, your points can either get you a face mask, gloves, reflector jackets, dust coats, gumboots and even a solar lamp, all to be used as protective gears during plastic waste collection,” he says.
A walk into Total Petrol station along Ngong Road, Nairobi, bumps you into a modern locally constructed drop-off point made of shipping containers. The modern drop-off point is designed for dropping minimal plastic waste due to its low capacity.
Those bringing in waste here are mostly passersby throwing away plastic water bottles and food packaging and those who drive into the station to fuel their cars.
Different from that located in Kibra, the Total drop-off point does not pay volunteers for bringing in their used plastics. Instead, they gain points depending on the number of kilograms of waste they submit. The accumulated points are redeemable when shopping for household goods in the Total Bonjour shop as an incentive for consumers to practice responsible use and recycling of plastics.
One of the customers at the Total is Cindy Ongeri. She discovered the idea of the drop-off point located at Total, Ngong Road, due to her regularly visiting the petrol station to fuel her car.
“Micro plastics constantly blocked sewerage systems in my neighborhood and when it rained sewer water would flood the roads and fill the air with foul smell. I needed to seek a solution to alleviate myself from being part of the problem that created this hazard. It was easy because my friends from the neighborhood had the same idea as mine, the only problem we had was that we had not identified a place we would take our plastic waste to,” Ongeri vividly explained.
“Before discovering a safer way of disposing plastic waste, I sort to accumulate used plastics at home due to the love I had developed for the environment since I had earlier learnt that plastics don’t decompose and when carelessly disposed it causes harm to us and our surrounding environment.”
Together with her friend, they now carry used plastics from home and deliver them to that drop-off point in turns.
Eric Owino, also a client of the drop-off point at Total Ngong road, would burn post- consumer plastic products used at his home as the trash bag given to them by garbage collection companies in Nairobi could not accommodate both plastics waste and other household wastes.
Despite being aware that burning of plastics releases carbon dioxide to the environment thereby contributing to climate change, Owino did not have a choice. Two years and still counting, he changed his way of getting rid of plastic waste and now brings them to the drop-off point. Thus, the location of the plastic drop off points in convenient places like petrol stations, have led to the-much-needed behavior change among many Nairobi residents in terms of responsible disposal of plastic wastes.
But there is still a lot to be done. According to ground operators working both in Kibra and Ngong road, the challenging part of the job is persuading members of the society to voluntarily bring plastics from their homes to the drop-off points.
“Most people perceive waste collection as being duties that should only be run by street children ‘chokoras’. Therefore, when trying to educate a smartly dressed person on how they can go about plastic waste disposal some will easily shun you and take it that you are despising them,” noted Mutiso.
As noted above, each of the 10 plastic collection points established by Mr Green Africa, collects an average of 1.5 tons of plastics in a span of a week. This is the waste reused and recycled into the final product by Mr. Green Africa.
The process of recycling the plastic waste by Mr Green Africa begins with collecting and transporting the bulk of this material to the company’s premises at Sameer Business Park, along Mombasa Road in Industrial Area Nairobi. The truck transporting trash to the company empties waste stored at each drop-off point at least once a week to create room for accommodation of more plastic waste.
On arrival to the company’s ground the plastic waste is sorted into different categories, based on the above-mentioned plastic types then sorted again based on colors (red, blue, yellow and green).
They are then transferred into a machine to be crushed into smaller pieces and hot-washed (a process that involves washing the pieces in hot water) to remove dirt residues in the materials. In the final process they are pelletized, which involves molding the plastic pieces into bead like particles.
The final recycled product of plastic materials in the company is the plastic pellet. These pellets are sold to various plastic manufacturers for conversion into different products, based on their preferences. Some of these companies in Kenya that buy these pellets are Ashut Engineers Limited, Radhe Plastic Limited, Kenpoly Manufacturers Limited and ACME Containers Limited among others.
Even so, the company lacks capacity to recycle all the types of plastic waste used in Nairobi, a source intimated. For example, the company only has capacity to process and recycle hard plastics such as High Density Polyethylene, Low Density Polyethylene and Polystyrene.
Thus, at their collection points they only pay for and receive the materials they deal with, leaving out the rest, which continues to pollute the environment.
As a result, Nairobi is still chocking with lots of soft plastics, such as the Polypropylene Polyethylene Terephthalate and Polyvinyl Chloride. Examples include soda bottles, water bottles, frozen food packaging and milk packaging due to lack of proper machinery to recycle them at Mr Green Africa.