At the Kampala Capital City Authority’s refuse dumpsite in Kiteezi, some 14 kilometres north of the CBD, men and women pick through the garbage alongside the ubiquitous marabou storks.
They are gathering plastic waste to sell to recyclers. Called “scavengers” in the local plastics industry, these men and women make Ush150 ($0.561) per kilogramme of plastic waste they sell to contract collectors.
The collectors earn Ush700 ($0.262) for every kilogramme they deliver to recyclers. This business chain also includes washers and transporters.
This scene is replicated around the region, creating an industry that employs thousands of people. Estimates put the number at about 80,000 in the more than 260 plastics manufacturing industries in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania as well as hundreds more who work in underground operations.
But while this waste is a source of livelihood to some, to activists it is an environmental and health hazard.
For regional governments, the clash between policy, business and public interests remains a huge challenge. They are now spending sleepless nights trying to find a solution to the plastic waste menace.
Those who support the use of plastics say their advantages — such as convenience, versatility, low cost and recyclability — outweigh the drawbacks. For example, they argue that plastics can save the world’s forests by substituting the use of wood-based products such as paper and timber in the furniture as well as building and construction industries.
But environmental regulators in East Africa want plastics banned due to their negative impact on soils and natural ecosystems.
“The problem of plastics is much bigger than Kaveera [a plastic carrier bag common in Uganda that the court banned recently due to its health and environmental hazards], but Kaveera is giving plastics a bad name because it is the most visible. Nobody is asking what happens to other forms of plastic such as bottles that equally choke the environment,” said a plastic manufacturer in Kampala who argued that governments in the region have not adequately supported recycling initiatives.
On the other hand, a rapidly expanding consumer sector and changing lifestyles are driving up the use of plastics.
The retail sector in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania has made plastic carrier bags the packaging material of choice while the switch by soft drink beverages and pharmaceutical industries from the glass bottle has added to the volume of waste.
Ban on plastics
But while East Africa’s finance ministers meeting in Arusha in 2007 banned plastic carrier bags with a density below 30 microns, implementation remains a challenge. The ministers reasoned that plastic material below that weight was not recyclable and was highly prone to contaminating the environment as it easily flew over great distances.
Manufacturers on the other hand argue that any weight of plastics can be recycled and have proposed recycling as the ultimate solution.
At a November 2008 EAC consultative workshop in Arusha on the prohibition of plastic bag, Rwanda advised against a blanket ban given the wide use of plastics in packaging basic commodities and imports.
Rwanda, which was the first country in East Africa to enforce a ban on plastic bags has implemented a control regime that requires importers to return plastic wrappers to the Customs office before subsequent imports into the country are allowed.
The Rwanda Environment Management Authority has contracted a private company to collect and store any plastics coming into the country for onward recycling into plastic conduits, construction sheeting and agricultural tubing for tree seedlings.
Plants producing plastic sheeting are also given conditional licences lasting six months for raw material imports as a control measure.
In contrast, neither Kenya with its more than 120 plastics factories, Tanzania with more than 100 nor Uganda with 40 plus, has an enforcement or sensitisation regime in place.
Even after the governments agreed to stop the manufacture and imports of plastics below 30 microns, industries in Uganda and Tanzania accuse their Kenyan counterparts of dumping carrier bags below 10 microns into their markets.
While Kenya argues that the bags are intended for markets outside the EAC such as South Sudan and the DRC, the Uganda Revenue Authority is engaged in running battles with smugglers of carrier bags from its neighbour.
And while manufacturers are pushing for recycling as a solution to the plastic waste menace, most remain sceptical about investing in the necessary machinery. Some say it remains unclear whether a ban on plastic bags will be enforced, while others argue that they are already tied down by bank loans and cannot risk further capital if the future of the industry is endangered.
“The truth is that any weight of plastics from one micron can be recycled but the focus on carrier bags is obscuring the bigger issue, which touches on policy and its impact on investment decisions. How do manufacturers decide whether to invest in recycling lines when they don’t know if a ban will be placed on the industry?” asked Alfred Rwabugahya, the operations manager at the Uganda Plastic Manufacturers and Recyclers Association (UPMRA).
A typical recycling unit with a washing machine and combustors costs a minimum $260,000. The cost can rise to $1 million if a reuse line that converts the plastic pellets into products such as PVC pipes, rubbish bins and gumboots is included.
“The ban is not practical because many people depend on the Kaveera value chain. If anything, the major impact of the ban has been to drive many manufacturers underground, denying the government much needed tax revenues,” argued Mr Rwabugahya.
However, Uganda’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) dismisses suggestions that there is policy ambiguity.
“While Kaveera reduces productivity in a predominantly agricultural economy due to its environmental impact, it is an evil we cannot do away with, so we insist it should all be recycled and used in a responsible manner,” said NEMA spokesperson Naome Karekaho.
Ms Karekaho added that manufacturers were abdicating on their responsibility to put in place a waste separation and buyback system for plastics.
While globally paper is often favoured over plastics because it is bio-degradable and recyclable, critics argue the process requires much more water and releases chemicals that end up in the environment than would come from plastic recycling.
Borrowing a leaf from South Africa, UPMRA has proposed a number of initiatives that will make it easy to recycle plastics.
Among these is encouraging recovery at source from say airport and commercial cleaning companies. Another way could be to get retailers to sell the carrier bags instead of giving them away for free as is the practice today.
Such a system is largely in place in rural areas where carrier bags are sold, thus encouraging reuse. However, there is no recovery system and they end up in the soil when they are no longer usable. The bigger problem is, however, in major urban centres where usage is heavy because of the high population density.
Uganda’s manufacturers support Rwanda’s system because it involves spending public resources on what should be a self-financing mechanism, allowing close to 100 per cent recovery of plastic waste that would otherwise end up in dumpsites.
The downside is plastic waste is not of uniform chemical composition and the system recycles only what it can handle. Nobody was available to explain what happens to the discarded waste.
The problem is not unique to Rwanda and is at the core of the recycling debate.
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For instance, the plastic wrappers used in the water, food and cosmetics industries require specialised equipment to recycle since they vaporise on contact with heat.
The cost of such machinery is high and requires an integrated domestic textile industry that would make use of the resulting polyester fibre.
“The plastic used for water bottles is not easily recyclable. It requires heavier investment and works in big countries like China, because it requires volume and a more sophisticated collection network. A single machine requires investments in the region of $800,000,” claims one manufacturer.
In the decade since 2003 when it embarked on developing its recycling industry, South Africa has registered major strides. Today, the country’s recyclers are targeting East Africa where they are selling recycled plastics pellets as raw material.
Recycling has become such a big industry in South Africa that it is difficult for a single recycler to collect a tonne of plastic waste a day.
One manufacturer says the potential for recycling plastics is so huge in East Africa that not even 50 recyclers would exhaust the market.
“There is money in waste but we are just opening our eyes. In South Africa, if you can get one tonne of plastic material a day, you are a king. People are fighting to secure supplies of plastic waste but it is still in its infancy here,” he said.
Additional reporting by Moses Ategeka