Mike Webster, London Community Resource Network
The UK’s waste and resources sector is now entering a new phase of maturity – a multi-billion pound industry employing thousands and recognised as a vital component of a future circular economy. But what was it like at the beginning – say 40 plus years ago when recycling and reuse was something promoted by a few lone voices against a majority that saw nothing wrong with landfilling most of our waste, and littering was more acceptable?
I have recently returned from a trip to the West African states of The Gambia and Senegal. Whilst in the Gambia, I was privileged to spend some time with Isatou Ceesay, founder of a revolutionary community recycling project, the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG).
Since 1997 she has been working with communities across the tiny west African state to address not only the environmental impact of unregulated waste disposal but also to provide income to what now amounts to over 100 women. She has hit that elusive sweet spot, providing jobs and livelihoods but also improving the environment.
Her mother thinks she’s mad. Why should she want to spend her life dealing with other people’s rubbish?
Well, she saw what those around her couldn’t – that the population was surrounded by ever growing mountains of waste, with a pressing environmental health need for better management of domestic waste, currently dumped in unregulated landfill or burnt in round the back of the house.
The impact of unregulated waste is manifold and well understood – from the environmental impacts on localised water pollution, disease associated with the blocking and flooding of drains, to the effect on air quality of uncontrolled burning of waste (largely plastic) and the impacts of landfill gas from uncontrolled landfills. This is before the visual disamenity of uncontrolled landfills is considered – important to a country like The Gambia where tourism accounts for around a fifth of GDP.
Isatou’s concern is primarily for those that deal with their own waste, and help them to do it better. Her key aim is to stop the burning first and foremost, leading with a message of waste prevention, particularly focussing on plastic, followed by promotion of reuse and implementation of recycling schemes.
The uncontrolled burning of plastic must be considered one of the great environmental health hazards of our time. It’s associated with a number of extremely harmful pollutants, from carbon dioxide, which affects mental function, to dioxins and furans that cause cancer and affect immune and reproductive systems, to volatile organic compounds that cause cancer and respiratory illness, as well as contributing to asthma.
In short, it’s a public health nightmare.
As our discussions unfolded, the fundamental urgency of her mission became clear as many of the municipal services taken for granted in the UK (including basic waste disposal) simply do not exist here outside of a few urban areas. It is entirely down to communities to deal and manage with their own waste. This is a common story across the developing world, with around 3 billion people living without any formal waste management system. The impact on health, environment and quality of life is unmeasurable.
But what does one do in a country where there is very little waste disposal infrastructure, let alone recycling infrastructure? Well, you create your own.
And in their four communities, NRIGG have developed entire life cycles for a range of common materials. They devised their own separation system, with organics, paper, plastic, metals and glass and developed, where it can, its own end markets.
Home composting training is given to those communities where schemes are set up, answering a demand for cheap, high quality organic fertilizer.
And then this is where the livelihoods aspect comes in. If a scheme couldn’t be set up in a way that weren’t self funding, and didn’t provide income for those that are managing them, then, with no outside support it just wouldn’t happen. So jobs are as important as the environment in it is to be sustained. There are some existing end markets for metals and these are separated and sold to traders, but with everything else, Isatou has had to come up with ways of turning the materials from waste into wealth.
Plastics are separated and stored to be up-cycled into everything from robust, long life bags, mats, purses. Rubber is turned into necklaces. Old cassette and video tapes are even woven into purses. This is combined with other non-waste activities, including honey production, production of waxes, creams and batiks. Even though these are non-waste associated, they support the women who can then continue to deliver and manage the recycling schemes.
These are also combined with a range of other saving schemes that help the women plan their incomes throughout the year, save for the 3-month “hungry gap” at the end of the year, when family farms aren’t producing, and develop their business skills. Sustaining community recycling schemes is perhaps the hardest part.
But challenges remain. If the scheme could grow to such a point where containers of material could be bulked and passed on to the global market more material streams could be developed. Somewhat strangely it seemed to me, the major problem waste stream faced by NRIGG was how to deal with glass. In the UK, glass has always been considered perhaps the easiest of all materials to collect, but with no local end markets and a lack of scale to access global markets, it is a problem in the Gambia. This perhaps points to the need for small to medium scale technologies that can reprocess such materials – a gap in the market?
The other challenge is that of a comprehension gap by those who could otherwise help. The Gambian authorities seem disinterested in delivering services outside a few tourist areas, with a focus on clearing material and dumping it in poorly regulated landfill, unaware of the massive economic and employment benefits associated with greater recycling. In a country where the average annual income is US$512, the economics of labour intensive sorting and reprocessing are surely more favourable?
And this is a scheme whose time has come. The need for better waste management is pressing, as urban populations grow, incomes increase and waste arisings grow, change, become harder to deal with and present a greater health risk. Plus there are jobs in it.
But the pioneering aspect is both the opportunity but also the challenge – once Isatou has convinced her mum, she still has to persuade an indifferent government and public. But it’s an exciting time – this is the start of something that can only grow.
So, how can you help? Resources to upscale are now vital. A vehicle to transport more materials, equipment to increase tonnages collected, even a larger sorting area and workshop are all needed.
If you’d like to help out, or get involved, drop me a line.
Mike Webster, firstname.lastname@example.org London Community Resource Network