Waste is not waste until it is wasted | eco@africa | DW | 25.11.2016
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Eco@Africa

Waste is not waste until it is wasted

Africa’s eco-entrepreneurs can tackle poverty and climate change at a grassroots level. But, writes Lorna Rutto, the right policies and investment are needed if their creativity and innovation are to have an impact. 

There are over six trillion tons of plastic lying around our planet. Plastic waste doesn’t naturally decompose. It chokes marine life, clogs drains, piles up in landfills and produces toxic emissions when burned.

The rate at which we produce, consume, generate and dispose of waste shows a disregard for resources, our environment and the global climate. In the long run, it could even lead to a global economic crisis.

Managing its municipal waste is one challenge Africa faces, alongside reducing poverty, conserving its forests – which are being lost at twice the rate of average global deforestation  –  and adapting to the impacts of climate change.

In my country, Kenya, half the population lives below the poverty line, earning less than $2 per day, with no access to basic amenities. Every year, over 1 million Kenyan youths enter a job market with no employment opportunities.

Africa has a vast wealth of post-consumer and post-harvest waste that can be used as a resource to reduce pressure on African forests – and to create jobs.

Converting waste into high-value products generates desperately needed revenue for local communities and cuts waste disposal costs. Where waste plastic replaces wood, fewer trees are felled, meaning there is less impact on the climate.

From plastic waste to plastic post

At EcoPost, we recycle plastic and agricultural biomass waste to manufacture durable, aesthetic and environmentally friendly plastic lumber. It’s used in fencing, road signs, furniture, and many other applications. Unlike timber, it doesn’t rot and is termite resistant.

So far, EcoPost has recycled over 2.5 million kilos of plastic waste, created over 2,000 direct and indirect job opportunities, saved over 450 acres of forest, and prevented over 2 million kilos of carbon emissions from seeping into the atmosphere.

A child collecting trash

Hunting for anything with a value

The circular economy can create thousands of employment opportunities. Some of the poorest people in society – particularly youth and women in marginalized areas – already rely on waste picking to earn their livelihood.

They toil in harsh conditions are exploited by middle men because they have no access to equipment that would allow them to increase their efficiency or add value to the trash they collect.

EcoPost integrates and trains groups of women and young people to add value to waste, creating sustainable business opportunities. We encourage youths to change the way they think about waste and use their creativity to innovate and transform trash into cash.

Funding from the bottom up

Yet despite the great opportunities offered by eco-entrepreneurship, social and environmental enterprises in Africa face major financial and technological challenges. Green enterprises struggle to secure loans. We tend to be perceived as more risky than conventional businesses.

Global leaders, local and international governments, NGOs, public and private players, and all relevant stakeholders should implement policies and structures that enable eco-enterprises to overcome barriers, reach scale and replicate.

This month, global leaders met in Marrakesh for the COP22 UN Climate meeting to determine how to implement the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement and ensure greenhouse gases do not make our planet uninhabitable for humankind. Countries that emit the most greenhouse gases have committed to provide an annual 100 billion US dollars between 2020 and 2025 for climate investment.

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Kenya: Lorna Rutto and the plastic revolution

African countries, despite having contributed little to climate change, are often the first to feel its effects. African eco-entrepreneurs need support and investment so they can adapt to the effects of climate change and play their part in reducing emissions.

There’s need for investment in better infrastructure, better technology and systems to transfer expertise, skills and know-how. Such investment would encourage communities to create novel solutions for delivering sustainable development at a grassroots level. 

Putting a dent in poverty while conserving the planet’s natural resources is no easy task. Without disruptive innovative enterprises and support from global leaders and relevant stakeholders, African countries risk remaining shackled by extreme poverty and the impacts of climate change.

Lorna Rutto is co-founder and CEO of EcoPost. She is also a 2016 Eco Ambassador for Eco@Africa, 2015 World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a recipient of various local and international awards for exceptional and exemplary community service.

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