New Vision (Kampala)

3 February 2013

Uganda: Recycling Business to Ease City's Plastic Waste Problem

A group of men toss used plastic mineral water bottles onto a truck parked by the roadside outside a mud and wattle stall, as they argue about the latest English Premiership football scores.

A few yards away, a white commuter taxi zooms past swirling up a cloud of dust, forcing a smartly dressed lady walking by to duck for cover.

But the men, unbothered by the choking dust, carry on with their duties. When the dust settles, Jimmy Lukyamuzi, a chubby, middle-aged man, emerges from the stall.

Every three days, Lukyamuzi, a resident of Mutungo, a city suburb, says he sells between 300 and 500 kilogrammes of trash bottles. He earns about sh2.5m every month.

After drinking mineral water, many of us look at the bottle as a piece of trash. Lukyamuzi sees it as a treasure. "I get most of the bottles from KCCA women, who sweep the streets. Sometimes children returning from school pass by with bottles," he explains.

These supplement a group of boys he sends out every morning to comb the streets and water channels for the prized stuff. Kefa, one of the boys, is grateful for the job. "On a good day, I make up to sh5,000," he says.

Once the heaps of waste have accumulated, Lukyamuzi makes a phone call to big dealers, who send him a truck to pick the bottles. Lukyamuzi is one of the hundreds of people supplying the 16 plastic waste recycling centres in the country.

The Gold mine:

Musa Mogi, who claims to be the first person in the country to collect trash bottles for sale, says plastic waste is set to become one of the best money minting ventures in Uganda in the coming years.

"The world is drifting away from tin and glass packaging to plastics, because plastics are easier and cheaper to recycle," he says.

Mogi says there are more plastics now than there were years ago. He started out as a bottle scavenger on the streets of Kampala in 2006, Mogi now owns his own plastic waste recycling factory.

He buys bottles from people like Lukyamuzi and turns them into products for export. At the factory, the bottles are cleaned thoroughly and shredded by special machines into small pieces called fl akes.

They are then packed in gunny bags in packs of 60 kilos for export to China and Europe, where demand is high.

The fl akes are used as raw materials in the making of carpets, winter clothes and children's toys, Mogi says. At his plastic recycling plant in Bwaise, a city suburb, Mogi employs 35 people.

He says he exports about 22 tonnes of plastic waste every month. MEXICO, which is the world's largest consumer of bottled water and now accounts for 13% of all the bottled water sold worldwide, could offer lessons to Uganda

To eliminate landfi lls and encourage local agriculture, a new programme allows for the exchange of recyclable trash for credits with local farms.

The Mercado de Trueque, a barter market where recyclable materials are exchanged for fresh food to support the city's farmlands is proving helpful in helping the environment to heal from the dangerous effects of non-degradable waste.

The market accepts glass, paper and cardboard, aluminum beverage cans, PET plastic bottles and awards "green points" redeemable for agricultural products grown in and around Mexico City, including lettuce, prickly pears, spinach, tomatoes, plants and fl owers.

The intention is to encourage and support the producers in soil conservation and to raise public awareness of the local supply.

God send for environment?

Approximately 600 tonnes of plastic are disposed of in Kampala everyday, of which the vast majority litter the city and clog vital sewage systems, according to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).

About 51% of the garbage in the city is left uncollected and ends up in drainage channels, natural water courses, manholes, undeveloped plots and on the roadside.

In most slum areas, people wait for nightfall to dump waste, especially polythene bags and other plastics, which clog drainage channels and the sewerage system, contributing to flooding in the city.

In 2009, the Government threatened to ban packed water unless its producers ensured proper disposal of plastic bottles. Maria Mutagamba, the then Minister for Water and Environment, said used water bottles were slowly turning into an environmental concern.

She made the statement a month after banning importation of polythene bags (buveera), adding that loads of uncollected plastic bottles found their way to Lake Victoria through Nakivubo Channel, posing great danger to the lake and aquatic life.

Prof. Afunadula Oweyegha, an environmental expert, says plastic waste is not degradable like organic garbage. "Plastics destroy the soils because the bacteria in the soil cannot degrade them.

They make the soil unfit for agriculture," he says. Plastic such as PVC (polyvinylchloride) which is commonly found in sewage pipes, bottles and jugs, vinyl tubing, drainpipes, blister packs, etc, emits gases like carbonmonoxide; dioxins and furans when burnt, which are associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.

"On TV the other day other day, some people were using it for cooking. How I wish they knew the risks they face," he says.

So with all the problems, could plastic waste management for cash become Uganda's solution? more effort needed Mogi, who has a diploma in environmental management and is a key stakeholder in plastic waste management for cash, does not think so.

He says unless the Government regulates and supports the industry, the country will continue missing out.

From a single plastic waste management plant in 2010, there are now over 15 plastic waste recycling plants in Uganda, most of them located in Kampala.

However, although this may seem like good news for the environment, many of the plants are riddled with problems that are undoing their contribution to keeping the environment safe.

Ronald Angutoko, the technical manager of Plastic Recycling Industries, says their recycling capacity is not fully exploited because they are limited by technology.

Angutoko says they turn away dirty plastics because they lack technology to clean them. "Plastic recycling industries need a specialized machine called a film washing line, but we don't have it yet," he said.

As a result, he says, the plant, which has a 10 tonne-per-day capacity, only works at a maximum of eight tonnes a day. Mogi says: "Being at the forefront of clearing plastic waste to keep our environment safe, the government should help us double our absorption capacity."

He says specialised machinery for recycling waste is expensive and out of reach for many in the business. "As a result, many of us are only willing to put our money where we can make quick returns, because we see waste management as a business and not a call to save the environment," he says.

Mogi adds that although there are over seven types of plastic waste in Uganda today only two types are of interest to waste management entrepreneurs.

"People are buying plastic chairs, toys for their children, mugs, even cars these days have an ample amount of plastics.

But what happens when all these turn into waste?" he asks. He says most dealers recycle mineral water bottles. They are made from polyethylene terephthalate or PET, which is on higher demand on the world market.

"It sells like hot cake. Even the Chinese have joined the plastic recycling business in Uganda," he says. He says although other dealers are taking to the other types, only about 10% of the plastic waste is being absorbed by the industry.

"In developed places like Europe, governments pay the waste entrepreneurs, even though they earn from the trade," he says. "It is time our own appreciated our role."

He says incentives like tax waivers on machinery used in recycling and giving entrepreneurs cheap credit, could go a long way in alleviating the problem.

Mogi says local companies which are responsible for accumulating plastic also ought to show interest in protecting the environment.

However, out of the several such companies, only Coca Cola, seems to be living up to that expectation. Through their community social responsibility programme, Coca Cola has facilitated the setting up of seven plastic waste collection centres in Uganda.

"We support the collection of not only bottles of Coke, but also for other companies. But ours is a small contribution. Other players need to come on board," Maureen Kyomuhendo, the principal publicist, says.

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