From the ground up
Zoë Lenkiewicz, Head of Programmes and Engagement at WasteAid, explains how the charity is providing economic opportunities and cleaning up the environment by turning low-density polyethylene into roofing tiles in The Gambia
WasteAid shares recycling skills around the world, building capacity in developing countries and creating sustainable jobs in waste management. One of WasteAid’s current flagship projects is in the West African country of The Gambia, where 100 people from the coastal village of Gunjur are being trained in low-tech plastic recycling.
The initiative is funded through the Small Charities Challenge Fund run by UK Aid (the Department for International Development). To satisfy the UK Aid goal to ‘leave no-one behind’, the training has been offered exclusively to vulnerable groups, including illiterate older women, unemployed youths and people with disabilities.
The Gambia has no real waste management system and authorities are struggling to keep on top of a growing municipal waste stream with increasing quantities of plastic. Apart from some rare materials that find a secondary use, everything that leaves people’s homes as waste is either dumped, or burned, or both. Being close to the ocean means a lot of waste plastic finds its way to the coast and local fisherman are noticing the accumulating plastic pollution along the shoreline and depleted fish stocks.
Back in 2015, The Gambia became one of the first countries in the world to ban the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag and the positive impacts were both immediate and obvious. Livestock are frequently left to roam around the village during the day, with cattle and goats now at less of a risk of ingesting plastic. Likewise, the bird-watching areas that make The Gambia a draw for British holidaymakers are now much less tangled in plastic remnants.
The usual suspects remain though, from single-use cups, bottles and cutlery through to metallised plastic (crisps and biscuit wrappers) and multi-layered packaging used in tetrapak cartons and single-portion sachets. WasteAid is working with partners to hopefully find solutions for these, from possible bans and replacements with reusable packaging, through to establishing closed- loop recycling options where they exist.
WasteAid’s current two-year programme in Gunjur is focusing on low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is the same plastic used to make the shopping bags which were banned in 2015. There is sadly still more than enough LDPE being generated by the people of Gunjur and in the surrounding villages. The plastic appears most commonly in portion-size bags, large sacks and the shrink wrap around every tray of bottles, cans and tins in Gunjur’s local grocery stores.
The first reason WasteAid focuses on LDPE is that for one of the most common plastics it is among the least recycled (even in the UK our recovery and recycling rate for LDPE is woefully low). The second reason is because of WasteAid’s specialist trainer, Pierre Kamsouloum from Cameroon.
Necessity is the mother of invention
When Pierre was a boy, he would scavenge from the dumpsite of his city to survive. Along with his young friends, Pierre would mostly collect rigid plastics and metal items, since these were fairly easy to spot and fetched a reasonable (though still paltry) price from the middlemen.
Pierre was a huge football fan and had the simple dream of owning his own football, but it was always beyond his budget. Instead, he resorted to melting plastic over the fire and molding it in his hands into a ball to kick around in the dust.
As a teenager, Pierre was still living by the dumpsite, searching each day for easily sellable materials. He remembered being a young boy and fashioning his own ball and decided to try experimenting. He asked his friends to help him collect LDPE (since it softens easily over heat, and melts to a wax-like liquid), but they soon gave up since they needed materials that they could sell to buy food.
Pierre persisted and discovered that if he melted the plastic and then added in sand, it set in an almost indestructible form that was much tougher than concrete. Over the following years, Pierre slowly built up a small enterprise, eventually employing eight people and supplying a government-approved construction product to the Cameroonian market.
Now a valuable member of the WasteAid team, Pierre has travelled to The Gambia a number of times to share his knowledge with the trainees in Gunjur. The process itself is not difficult but there is certainly a knack to getting it right. The tools and equipment are simple and can be fabricated anywhere with a basic metal workshop. The most important, and technically difficult, stage is to learn to identify and sort the different flexible plastics. Since all plastics melt and burn at different temperatures, it is vital that no contaminants (such as polypropylene or sellotape) go into the melting drum. Once the LDPE is melted into liquid form, it is blended with sharp sand until the mixture resembles cement. Then it is turned out into metal molds and left for a short time to set.
As with the manufacture of any product, being able to sell is a fundamental part of the business plan. The Gambia is a little unusual in that it has no natural stone. Lying entirely along the banks of a large river and the coast, there is no limestone, clay or other suitable building material available. As such, all the bricks and paving stones in The Gambia are made from cement: a highly polluting, and not always fit-for-purpose product. The paving tiles made using LDPE by the WasteAid trainees in Gunjur are more durable than concrete tiles and can be sold at the same market price. They look and behave the same (except they don’t break, at all), and so are proving popular with local customers.
When people are living in extreme poverty (earning less than $1.90 or £1.45 a day) they are naturally more risk-averse. Trying a new product becomes a luxury for those who can afford to make a mistake (the same rule applies for cooking fuel and other basic necessities). This means that product innovation always needs to take the local economy, context and traditions into account. Understanding what people are used to, what challenges they have, and how much they will pay for an alternative is crucial and varies from place to place. A similar village to Gunjur in a place with abundant stone, for example, would be unlikely to provide such a strong demand for durable paving tiles.
The team has tried innovating and experimenting with a wider range of products, as yet without the same degree of success. The first fence post prototype used 15 times the amount of plastic but could not be sold for 15 times the price; whereas the roof tiles could fetch a higher price but are just too different to what people are used to, and so don’t sell. Roofs in The Gambia are typically made of corrugated metal sheets, and so roof carpentry is designed to support sheets, not individual tiles. The team are now hoping to innovate some more, and to try making a replacement sheeting material that can compete with metal. Afterall, it is much more insulative so if the product can get closer to what people are familiar with, the team might just crack a whole new market.
As a sustainable development initiative the process is working a treat. Within the first two months the team had diverted the equivalent of a million plastic bags from being dumped or burned. Awareness is growing through the village, jobs are being created, and there is a sense of innovation and excitement in the air.
To support this project and find out more please visit the Waste Aid website.