GEOFFREY ODHIAMBO ONYANGO – The threat of plastic bags: what alternatives?


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Waste pickers play an important role in waste management in Kenya. Not only do they help keep cities and towns clean, but they also play an important role in the recycling process.

In 2019, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers recovered over 6,000 metric tonnes of plastic for recycling. This would not have been possible without the work of the garbage collectors. However, there is insufficient data to quantify the contribution of waste collection to waste management.

With a population of five million, Nairobi is estimated to generate between 2,000 and 4,000 tonnes of waste per day. Together, the cities of Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu generate 10,000 tons of waste every day, a significant part of which is managed by waste pickers.

Waste pickers in Kenya fall into two main categories – those who are part of the formal urban waste management workforce and those who work in the informal economy. Formal workers are either employed by county governments or made up of licensed and unlicensed private operators serving homes and commercial facilities. The waste they collect is sent to mandated landfills where sorting is carried out. Formal waste managers work in a coordinated way. They enjoy a steady income and other benefits, including membership in unions that advocate for their welfare. However, they are paid a minimum wage and often fall into the lower management category in both the public and private sectors. It is expected that there will be nearly 100,000 formal waste pickers in Kenya.

On the other hand, the existence of an informal waste collection economy is historically linked to poverty and is mainly associated with vulnerable groups such as street families and slum dwellers, many of whom are women and children. Due to the informal nature of their work, their exact number is unknown. These workers collect garbage from the streets, garbage cans, markets, waste transfer stations and dumps. They rarely form part of social groups. When they do exist, they are usually cartels that benefit leaders at the expense of members.

It is expected that there will be nearly 100,000 formal waste pickers in Kenya.

Additionally, there are instances where informal waste pickers are exploited by society at large. This exploitation takes the form of unpaid labor in places such as municipal markets. In 2019, Clean Up Kenya, a pressure group, documented cases in Kibra, Dagoretti and Otiende, all in Nairobi, where sections of the informal business community are implicated in these abuses.

Langata Tegemeo, a group of around 50 young people who serve over 500 households in the slums of Kijijini, Southlands, is a good case study in the informal waste collection economy. The group collects waste from each household for a fee of 20 Kenyan shillings per week and brings it to a government-allocated waste transfer station.

They frequently receive donations in the form of protective gear and work gear from well-wishers, including politicians. In return, they engage in voluntary street waste collection activities, not only in the slum but also in well-to-do areas of Langata.

Such groups exist in most informal settlements where government waste management services are lacking. They are not recognized by the government. There was, however, an attempt to provide some form of subsidy in 2018 when a number of manufacturers teamed up to create a fund that was supposed to increase recycling by doubling the price of certain types of plastics. Unfortunately, the program does not yet benefit waste pickers because they do not have access to said manufacturers.

Another undervalued form of waste collection work is provided by street families. According to the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census, 20,000 people live on the streets in Kenya. Some of these homeless people collect plastic bottles and scrap metal to resell them to brokers, who then sell them to recyclers at a profit.

Another litter collection initiative worth mentioning is Flipflopi, which describes itself as “a movement for change with a mission to end single-use plastic and lead a plastic reuse revolution.” In 2017, Flipflopi made a boat out of ten tons of plastic collected by volunteers from beaches. The boat sailed along the East African coast in 2019 to raise awareness of the global plastics problem, which won Kenya international praise.

Some of these homeless people collect plastic bottles and scrap metal to resell them to brokers, who then sell them to recyclers at a profit.

Thousands of cleanups are carried out each year in Kenya, recovering hundreds of tons of waste from the streets, rivers and communities. While many are grassroots initiatives, Clean Up Kenya is among the organizations recruiting nationwide for cleanups.

Finally, we have waste pickers who work on landfills. There is at least one controlled landfill in each of the 47 counties, the largest being the Dandora landfill in Nairobi.

The landfill was commissioned in the late 1970s and is still operational although it was declared full in 2001. Located in a poor neighborhood, the Dandora landfill receives almost all household, commercial and municipal waste from the city.

Discussions on the landfill decommissioning project have been going on for twenty years without much success. Although the landfill is an environmental and health hazard, it is estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 waste pickers and their families depend on it for their livelihoods. Many work without protective gear, exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals that negatively impact their health. According to a study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Program, high concentrations of heavy metals such as lead and mercury were found in children living near the landfill.

Stanley Didi, Shepherd CBO coordinator and former street boy, says: “We believe the government has committed a crime against the waste picker community and the people of Dandora.

The landfill is easily accessible to everyone, including children. Vicious gangs and cartels control operations at the landfill. They dictate who should choose what, where and when. Sometimes riots and fights break out whenever trucks bring in “lucrative” garbage.

Although there is no data available on the amount of recyclable waste recovered from the landfill, it is assumed that a significant part of the 6,000 tonnes of plastic recovered in 2019 came from Dandora.

Some dumps are better coordinated though. A good example is the Ngong landfill in Kajiado County, which has since been closed due to environmental concerns. At its peak, it received 50 to 100 tons of waste per day.

“We believe the government has committed a crime against the waste collection community and the people of Dandora.”

The pickers had divided into groups, with each group allowed access to the dump on the basis of a daily list, with women’s days also scheduled. This coordination has reduced conflicts between pickers. The workers had a welfare group that supported about 200 members. There was a play area for children who accompanied their mothers to work, and they were not allowed on the landfill.

Kenya has yet to fully appreciate the important role that waste collection contributes to waste management. Existing waste management laws do not recognize the role of waste pickers despite the fact that a large percentage of the nearly 10 million tonnes of waste produced each year is handled by waste pickers.

Most of these workers live in extreme poverty, often without housing. There is a need to integrate them into national and county waste management plans and involve them in decision-making, which could include supporting efforts to establish a national waste collection movement to advance human rights. of this essential workforce.

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