Nairobi is a bustling city. It is home to about 7 million people…and, well, a lot of rubbish.
The city generates more than 4,000 metric tonnes of waste every day, owing to its large population. But have you ever wondered what happens to the gobs of waste that garbage collectors pick up from our houses, the hospitality sector, shopping malls and industries?
Well, it continues to pack up a neat little mountain in Dandora. Yet the Dandora dumping site, the designated 46-hectare Nairobi county waste yard, has long surpassed its holding capacity.
Established in 1975, and with no horizontal expansion of the grounds after 43 years of accumulated garbage, a 20-metre-high hill of waste continues to grow. It has even spilled over onto a nearby 3-hectare quarry.
In fact, the site was declared full in 1996, some 22 years ago, but has continued to receive garbage as plans to relocate it have repeatedly come a cropper. Lack of land has been said to be one of the reasons.
But, as this glaring garbage crisis endures and officials at City Hall continue to scratch their heads over the growing mounds, at another much smaller rubbish dump, a different story is unfolding.
The setup, in Banana, Limuru—unlike the eyesore that is the Dandora dumpsite—is organized systematically. It is so orderly that, at first glance and save for a slight acrid smell wafting through the air, it is hard to imagine that this is a garbage site.
Daniel Paffenholz, the founder and CEO of Takataka Solutions—a garbage collection company here in Nairobi and the brainchild behind the waste management site—prefers to refer to it as a sorting site rather than a garbage dump. And it is easy to see why. He operates a garbage collection company far removed from your typical trash haulier.
TakaTaka Solutions is one of very few—if any—companies in Kenya effectively employing a circular economy around waste and, in the process, saving the environment from devastation. (According to Wikipedia, a circular economy “is a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and upcycling. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.”)
The main aim is to regulate waste and encourage recycling.
On the day that we visit, a buyer is loading flattened cardboard boxes into a truck destined for his recycling plant. He will probably reprocess it into paper.
TakaTaka Solutions exists for enterprises like these that can repurpose whatever is brought in through the gates of their site here and another in Kangemi. It runs a waste management model based on professional sorting of the trash.
But for their ‘trash’ customers to want to engage, they must make the scrap palatable. So, at both sites, everything is taken through a meticulous sorting process—the grunt work that will turn out all the important and recyclable fragments off the ghastly hodgepodge of trash that first lands at the compound’s gates. The company has become adept at extracting value from castoffs.
“We pick up the trash from our clients’ houses or businesses, just like any other garbage collector, in trucks. And either bring it here or take it to the Kangemi site. And the day’s trash is taken through the process of sorting on the same day. We never want to store the garbage for a day because we do not have enough space for that. Also, pig farmers who pick up the food remnants can’t wait for long,” explains Paffenholz, whose major customers are residential areas, malls, and learning institutions.
But TakaTaka Solutions, a fully certified commercial waste company, like the hundreds many others that do the job around the city, doesn’t take its waste to Dandora. Rather, the garbage is transported to the Banana or Kangemi sites where the company operates a professional sorting outfit. A few dozen women will be waiting to sort it. The company has about 60 people working on the Banana site and 200 staff in total. The sorters do about 500kgs of trash a day each.
Paffenholz has managed to build a sustainable business model out of trash that ensures the environment also benefits. The sorting sites are licensed by National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
At least 1 per cent of the 4,000 tonnes of solid waste collected in the city everyday ends up at the two locations sitting on three quarters and six acres at the Kangemi and Banana sites respectively. There are plans to establish another such site in Thogoto most likely in the next few months, as the business expands.
Back at the Banana establishment, rows of massive tables hanging with about 20 different sacks on the sides, are swarmed with all manner of things. At the tables, women, who are majority of the employees here, each go through the contents on their tables sorting masterfully and swiftly and throwing the different fractions: paper, plastic, metal, glass, et cetera, et cetera, in their designated sacks.
In another gigantic sack, in goes all the food scraps and other organic materials that can be decomposed. These will end up at one extreme corner of the grounds where they will be composted to produce organic fertilizer.
About 10 per cent of the organic waste is bought by pig farmers while 90 per cent is taken through the compositing process and is sold to farmers as organic fertilizer.
Organic waste – which is the vast majority of the total garbage collected—constitutes about 60 to 65 per cent of the 40 to 45 tonnes of waste stream that ends up here daily. Yet for every five tonnes of organic waste he gets one tonne of compost at the end.
Paffenholz notes, “A 50kg bag of organic fertilizer goes for Sh750. The money-making is yet to happen on that side of the business.”
The recyclable materials that are left are exhaustively sorted to get all that can be got out of them. “We are able to recycle about 95 per cent of the waste, which is quite impressive. It’s just about 5 per cent of the fractions that we have been disposing at landfills,” says Paffenholz, as he gives us a tour of the site.
In comparison, the recycling rate anywhere else in the country is about 5 per cent. In fact, most of the waste, particularly in low income settlements, does not get collected at all.
Material recovery mostly depends only on the informal sector. It is characterized by a cherry-picking exercise mainly left to poor people, who make a living by material recovery in an unorganized manner. They pick some re-usable waste fractions 'at source, turn-boys of the garbage pick-up trucks who pick the quick, easy to sell items like cardboards and plastics from collection trucks, scavengers at dumpsites' (often under un-human work conditions).
This is how the company that collects 1 per cent of Nairobi’s waste is keeping the city clean by ensuring that the trash it collects does not find itself trashed back in the environment.
According to Paffenholz, the future of waste management is in reducing what ends up in landfills by recycling most of what can be recycled before disposal. Yet Paffenholz thinks they have barely scratched the surface. “This is nothing considering we don’t even cover 1 per cent of the waste generated.”
“What we are trying to do is to do something better than the dumpsites. Most waste is disposed of at the main dumpsites of Dandora, Kayole or Ngong. This is the standard operating model of pretty much all waste companies in the city. There had to be an alternative,” says the ardent advocate for recycling and reuse.
Paffenholz says he decided to make a go at the trash business after coming of age and realizing how unsafely the community he lived in Mombasa dealt with trash. In 2011, when he returned into the country from the UK where he had gone for further education, the journey to turn waste into resourceful materials started in earnest.
But the Kenyan-German admits that when he started, he did not visualize the waste regenerative enterprise that TakaTaka solutions has morphed into today.
Recognizing that landfills pollute soils, groundwater and air, he says the implications of emptying their trash at the Dandora landfill, became apparent after joining the business.
And in future, as the city’s population grows, according to Paffenholz "closing the loops" for municipal solid waste management alone would mean successfully tackling the more than two million tons of solid waste every year over the next decade. But the reality is that available space is already too strained to tackle the now 1.5 million tonnes of trash per annum.
For that matter, Paffenholz says Kenya’s cities must rethink their waste management strategies as a means of reducing the cities’ adverse environmental impacts. And he believes he is onto something that can be replicated to solve the enormous garbage problem of Nairobi and other big cities. In fact, his future plan is to devolve the service to other major cities that are faced with the garbage problem.
In addition to the composting equipment at Banana, soon TakaTaka will itself start feeding some of the materials into new production processes and has already invested in two recycling units one for plastic and another for Styrofoam.
“We are starting to invest in our recycling equipment. We already have some of the recycling equipment for some of the components on site... we are waiting for a couple other equipment to get to Kenya and we’ll start recycling both plastic and Styrofoam,” says Paffenholz, as it becomes apparent that there are some fractions that the Kenyan market is not sufficiently equipped to recycle.
He says his company is venturing into areas of recycling that others have stayed away from like glass and Styrofoam.
“Things like paper and plastic are profitable to recycle,” he notes, “but glass rarely, if ever, is profitable. Same for Styrofoam.”
An employee on the grounds tells us the material stacked up high to the ceiling in the back, taking about half of the storage on the grounds is Styrofoam. Apparently no recycler exists in Kenya yet for the material that is very common in insulation packaging.
“Because it is harder to recycle nobody really comes for it so we have to get equipment ourselves to recycle. So we are bringing in a machinery that will crush it compact it and make construction-building blocks out of it,” says Paffenholz, who admits that they don’t know yet whether a market for these kinds of bricks exists in Kenya, only that a way must be found to get rid of the stacks.
MINDING THE ENVIRONMENT
He estimates that they have almost 50 trucks of Styrofoam in stock. But he says other than dispose it, and leave the environment to deal with it, he is willing to take the chance, “for the sake of the environment.”
On the whole, Paffenholz says the company is building its own recycling capacity to ensure that all or most of the trash is dealt with and does not find its way back into the environment.
For now, the company is only sorting and processing its own waste. However, its CEO says they would charge Sh750 for any outside waste collection companies who wanted to take their trash to TakaTaka Solutions’ sites.
For city garbage collectors to dump their waste at Dandora they pay Sh500 a tonne or Sh2,000 for a 4-tonne truck.
“But, before we can take anybody else’s waste, we need to become more efficient…. get better at sorting and recycling,” he says.
Asked why he is investing millions of shillings in the extra processes when he could just simply deposit the trash at a landfill like everybody else, he says, “It is always cheaper to just dump the waste we collect somewhere and forget about it rather than build a site like this one, transport it here and employ people to sort. This is an expensive undertaking on the whole, but it makes not only more economic sense in the long-term, but it also reduced the overall environmental costs.”
Even after all the work, in the past the company has sometimes given out recovered materials for free. “Because we know it will not end up in the environment as a pollutant. It makes more environmental and economic sense if everything is recycled,” says Paffenholz.
In the past, TakaTaka Solutions was the one looking for clients but today the clients, mostly inspired by the environmental consciousness of the way in which they handle the waste, come knocking at their door.
Kenya lacks efficient waste collection and disposal systems. Takataka Solutions’ sites readily demonstrates that efficient waste management is possible if only there were deliberate efforts by counties to tackle the waste menace. “All trash should go to professional sorting sites where we can get a lot more and do more for the environment,” he says.
In his analysis, Nairobi could save up to 95 per cent of the space it is currently using at the Dandora site if it adopted the kind of strategic waste management scheme he has employed.
Asked if it is a challenge he would be willing to take, he says “yes”, but adds, “although that would require well thought-out partnerships with the counties and other waste collectors.”