In the 1990s, as China grew to be one of the biggest manufacturers globally, it began importing plastic waste from countries with the aim of recycling it. With 45 per cent of the plastic waste landing within its borders, it effectively became the global plastic trash can. Many countries found it cheaper to ship their plastic waste to China as opposed to developing concrete domestic recycling plants. At the end of 2017, China rained on the world’s parade by banning importation of non-industrial plastic waste, and with good reason.
The material it imported was no longer fit for recycling due to high rates of contamination ending up in landfills in their own country, endangering their environmental health. This policy has thrown the world into disarray because by 2030, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will have been “displaced”. “Displaced” essentially means the huge piles of plastic waste will have nowhere to go. Plastics manufacturers convinced us recycling would be a great way to handle the waste produced. We swallowed their bait, and now the chickens have finally come home to roost.
In Kenya, solid waste disposal in general poses a challenge to many urban centres. According to The Kenya Integrated Household Budget survey of 2015, Nairobi generates 2,400 tonnes of trash per day, Mombasa 2,200 tonnes; Eldoret, Kisumu and Nakuru 600 tonnes, 400 tonnes and 250 tonnes respectively. The survey found only 25 per cent waste in urban areas is collected. The rest is burnt, dumped or buried. This has a negative impact on the overall health and well-being of the environment and society. To minimise this, recycling is usually encouraged since it helps protect the environment by reducing need for extracting new materials, and it saves energy required to produce new materials.
During the 2018 Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, the Kenya PET Recycling Company stated that of the 20,000 tonnes of plastic waste the industry produces annually, only 5 per cent is collected and recycled. They hoped to increase this to 70 per cent by 2025 by developing infrastructure and promoting efficiency in collection, processing and recycling of the bottles. While we are hopeful for the best, recycling initiatives haven’t been as successful here, not because of the people; they are willing to participate, but rather because of the system’s failure.
First, there’s no management buy-in for recycling. Recycling exists as a concept in policy papers, government and corporate speeches. It rarely translates into action. The government has to set up facilities and infrastructure that aid plastics recycling, and this has to be followed by rules and regulations that support it.
The more the country’s management is invested in it, the more the public will be involved. Second, there’s a lack of education on recycling. What’s number 5 or 7 recycling? This jargon tends to be confusing to citizens making it hard to engage. Communities need constant, easy-to-understand-and-access information, on what constitutes recycling, making their participation possible and fun. Households, as the basic unit of our society, form an excellent recycling base. If waste is segregated at source, it can be recycled since it is uncontaminated.
Proper waste segregation is also a way to show honour to garbage collectors and waste pickers, who earn their daily keep from it. Cleaner waste means more value hence more money. Education also means entrenching positive environmental values in our cultures. Third, there’s a lack of incentive to recycle and buy recycled products. The government should consider offering market and tax incentives to companies and people that create products from recyclables, or use recycled content. A positive change in the three factors above can turn around recycling in Kenya. If done properly, recycling can be a step forward in managing the solid waste menace. We can be the next China, recycling plastic trash from other countries.
A good place to start would be the Dandora dumpsite which can be converted it into a formal plastic recycling hub. Kenya has the money and expertise to do this. We just need visionaries and political good will for such life-changing endeavours.