Trash turns to treasure

Emmanuel Kafe Extra Reporter —
Isaac Mhandu trudges along Copacabana bus terminus carrying a sack filled to the brim with plastics, glass bottles and empty cans.

The waste has been collected from dustbins and street drainages around the city centre. Wearing a dirty overall and worn out shoes, Mhandu is self-employed even though he holds a diploma in marketing. Plastic junk has become a source of regular income for him.

Where others see trash and waste, Mhandu sees treasure from which he can make money. He is one of the many unemployed youths who have defied odds by eking a living out of collecting plastic, cans and bottles around Harare’s major suburbs.

“I collect 20kgs of plastic every day and sell for 50c per kg, the same with glass bottles and cans,” said Mhandu.

A girl, who only identified herself as Memory, who also operates along Charter Street collects cardboard boxes and cans which she sells to one of the nearby solid waste collectors just after the Mbare fly over.

“It is a brisk business for us because a lot of people are not into waste collection,” said Memory.

The solid waste is being sold to recycling companies like Pro-plastic and Recycle Today. Solid or non-degradable waste refers to discarded materials other than fluids and gases.

Plastics do not rot, but pose long-term threats to the environment and if improperly managed solid non- biodegradable waste is persistent in the environment and can result in undesirable effects like pollution of land and water.

It can harbour pathogens and vectors and promote the spread of diseases such as cholera, typhoid. It also causes blockage of water and sewer drains causing flash floods in urban areas. Burning of polystyrene polymers (commonly referred to as kaylites) such as foam cups, containers and meat trays releases styrene gas that is associated with several ailments.

The only option to counter this problem is through recycling and reusing some of these materials. As the country becomes more technologically advanced, it produces materials that can withstand extreme temperatures, are durable and easy to use. Plastic bags, synthetics, plastic bottles, cans and computer parts are some of the items that make life easy, but are difficult to dispose.

In an urban set-up, solid waste is chiefly plastic and metal from food packing and beverages containers that are non-degradable, waste that cannot be broken down into base compounds by micro-organisms, air, moisture or soil in a reasonable amount of time. Increasing population, rapid urbanisation, industrial growth and modernised lifestyles have increased the demand of processed, preserved and packaged foods and beverages.

As such, solid waste is mainly a direct product of post-consumer materials and it includes plastics and metals.

Poor solid waste management has become one of the challenges facing most urban areas in Zimbabwe and people who are collecting plastics bottles and cans in the streets for recycling are positively involved in solid waste management.

Recycle Today is one of the few waste collection start-ups which collect solid waste for recycling in South Africa.

Dickson Makombera, the managing director, said they started off collecting cans only, but they have since moved into polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, glass, cardboards boxes and other types of paper.

The small company has managed to employ a lot of youths and indirectly a lot more through picking papers around Harare.

“Our workforce is comprised of 28 full-time employees and more than 500 waste pickers whom we buy waste from,” said Makombera.

Makombera said that the company collects about 300 tonnes of cardboard, 60 tonnes of PET bottles, 500 tonnes of glass, and 30 tonnes of cans each month for export to South Africa where there are more advanced recycling firms.

“Our plan is to build a waste energy plant in the future. We are also working on an initiative with council and other recycling organisations to establish ward-based waste collection centres. So far, we have already established one waste collection centre in Sunningdale,” added Makombera.

But there have been many challenges to solid waste management, one being the inability to recycle and the shortage of cash to pay the waste collectors.

Makombera, however, said that there is a need for mind-set change in terms of waste management. “People do not understand the value of separating waste at source. The Pomona dump site fire disaster could have been avoided if people were practising separation of waste at source. About 70 percent of waste going to Pomona is bio-degradable while about 20 percent is recyclable. This means only five percent of Harare’s waste should be at Pomona,” explained Makombera.

“We are the ones who litter and it should be upon us, as residents, to make sure that our environment is clean,” said Makombera.

Trash Matters, an unregistered company in Mbare, also into can and plastic collection, uses the materials to make children’s toys and dolls creating employment for many youths. Zvidzai, the owner of the company, said he is able to pay his rentals on time by selling toys made from these cans and cardboard boxes.

“I am actually realising some profits from the sales of these toys, made from cans,” he said. In a video on their official Facebook page, the Harare City Council through Engineer Calvin Chigariro said there are plans to manage solid waste in and around the city.

“Yes, after the biogas plant at Mbare there will also be screening of solid material from sewer and we will set up waste separators,” he is recorded saying.

Vusani Mapfumo, a fourth year student with the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Zimbabwe, said there was need to adopt new high-tech methods of waste management which uses fungal enzymes to recycle plastics.

“The plastic is broken down into its monomer building blocks by the enzymes which can then be converted back into more high value polymers,” he said. He added that using bio-engineered fungal enzymes, the recycling of PET plastic can be done “naturally” without the production of any new by-products.

The Environmental Management Act as read with Statutory Instrument 6 of 2007 (Environmental Management (Effluent and Solid Waste Disposal Regulations) prescribes that every generator of waste has to develop waste management plans and waste reduction targets. The waste reduction targets are to include the creation of modes of distribution, such as two-way and return systems, that reduces residual waste to a minimum.

This is also re-emphasised in Statutory Instrument 98 of 2010 (Environmental Management [Plastic Packaging and Plastic Bottles] Regulations).

Many waste collection initiatives pioneered by organisations and corporates have sprung up and disappeared in Harare over the years. Many of these initiatives failed due to sustainability issues. With Zimbabwe being a high consuming country as evidenced by the high levels of waste in the country there is great potential for the recycling industry.

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