Making waste pay in the developing world | Eco Africa | DW | 19.08.2016
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Eco Africa

Making waste pay in the developing world

When most people look at waste, they see just that: Trash to be tossed away. This week's guest writer Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, however, sees an opportunity for the economy and the environment.

When people think of waste in the developing world, images of smoldering rubbish dumps piled high with trash might spring to mind. For those living in countries in which such dumps are commonplace and polluting waterways, the air and soil, they may feel the problem is intractable.

This is in stark contrast to other parts of the world, like Sweden, where the journey to successfully dealing with waste is well on its way. Waste trucks are clean and slick and recycling facilities could easily be confused for electronics manufacturing plants.

On a visit to an e-waste recycling plant in Belgium, I was made to wear a lab coat, booties, glasses and gloves to protect the waste from me - and not the other way around. I went through elaborate security protocols, which ensured the precious minerals being mined from the waste were not stolen.

In countries like this, waste is not viewed as waste, but as a resource. Many are taking note of the opportunities to be had. Zhang Yin, who was the first woman to top China's rich list, is one of those people. She made her fortune exporting used paper collected from garbage dumps in the United States to be sold in China.

Opportunity knocks

Symbolbild Altpapier

One of China's richest people made her fortune from paper

But in countries, such as Nigeria, a gap in the recycling market means waste is not seen as valuable. To solve that problem, three things need to happen. Firstly, policies that encourage producers to take responsibility for their waste should be introduced. For instance, the government could mandate producers to set aside a portion of their revenues for funding recycling programs that collect used packaging from consumers. By doing so, the cost of waste management would be shifted from governments to manufacturers. This would incentivize the latter to produce materials that can be recycled efficiently to cut costs.

Here's an example. At the company I co-founded, Wecyclers, we collect recyclable rubbish from Lagos households that subscribe to our service. The collectables include plastic bottles which are processed for sale to recyclers. But the recyclers won't purchase bottles of one particular color, though, as there is no local market. This leaves us and other collectors stuck with huge piles of bottles that we have expended considerable time, effort and expense to collect. But if manufacturers had to ensure used packaging is collected, those using that color bottle would either switch colors or strike a deal with their supplier to recycle those bottles.

Another powerful policy is mandating zero waste to landfill. Governments should set annual targets for companies, which will promote good behavior across the board, knowledge sharing and collaboration. As a last resort, they could follow up with enforcement.

Creating incentives

Leergutautomat in einem Supermarkt.

In Germany, consumers pay a deposit on PET and glass bottles. When they recycle them, they get that cash back

Secondly, waste should be seen as...well, not just waste. When it is viewed as a resource and incentives are created along the value chain, waste can be utilized to empower. People can earn extra income from being engaged in cleaning up their communities. Introduction of incentive-based programs would also create much-needed jobs in these communities.

Wecyclers, for example, incentivizes households to recycle their waste in exchange for points, which they earn for each kilogram they recycle. Households accumulate points they can exchange for household items, electronics or cash. Any funds raised from the introduction of producer responsibility policies could fund waste collection programs and ensure that people are motivated to recycle. Programs would be funded based on the amount of waste they recycle which would promote innovative and far-reaching collection strategies.

Stay local

And finally, to ensure that value is kept in the country, waste products must be used locally to produce finished goods. This would ensure that recyclers capture maximum value, which can be passed upstream to waste collectors who would be able to collect sustainably. It would also mean more useful items are produced within a country and reduce pressure on foreign exchange reserves.

Currently in Nigeria, a large proportion of collected waste is shipped overseas to countries like China where they are further processed and shipped back. But some companies are bucking the trend. Businesses like Polysmart and Blackhorse Plastics use waste plastic to make poly bags, chairs, tables and other household materials, which are purchased by local consumers.

Waste is money

Ein Fisch schwimmt nahe einer Plastiktüte im Roten Meer

Our oceans are full of plastic being ingested by marine life

The waste time bomb is ticking even more loudly with the news that by 2050, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by weight. Now is the time to act - and realizing that recycling could be a boon for the environment as well as government and industry coffers is key.

For many years, waste management has been seen as a government problem rather than an opportunity. In 2015, the Lagos State Government spent 4 billion naira (US $11,420,440) on waste disposal - or approximately 1 percent of its budget, according to my calcuation from the state budget. But waste management could generate rather than drain revenue for the government.

The implementation of sound policies would create an enabling environment for private sector players. Whenever I see plastic bottles on the street, I see money; I hope others do too so we can stop wasting our waste.

Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola is a Nigerian social entrepreneur and co-founder of Wecyclers. The company collects recyclable domestic waste using low-cost cargo bikes. For every kilo of material families recycle, they receive redeemable points via their cell phones. Bilikiss is a graduate of Fisk University, Vanderbilt University and MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

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