Ridding rivers of plastics and waste

People collecting Plastic waste from Nairobi river passing through Kariobangi in Nairobi using plastic waste capture system Machine on July 8,2021.The machine is used to capture discarded plastics floating in the urban rivers.

Photo credit: Evans Habil I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • This is just the initial stage of a long and interesting process that will see the discarded plastic converted into construction materials.
  • The project is the creation of Clifford Okoth Owino, an industrial chemistry graduate and environmental consultant

It is mid-morning in Kiambea slum within Kariobangi, Nairobi. There is an overwhelming stench of a mixture of sewage and garbage from the Nairobi River, which runs through part of the informal settlement carrying plastic waste towards a wire mesh barrier.

It is here that we find Samuel Njihia and a group of five other young men garbed in green overalls, unperturbed by the unpleasant smell, raking up the plastic onto a conveyor system. This is just the initial stage of a long and interesting process that will see the discarded plastic converted into construction materials.

The project is the creation of Clifford Okoth Owino, an industrial chemistry graduate and environmental consultant. Owino is also the co-founder of Chemolex Company Ltd, a clean energy and waste management startup

The company has created a system that traps discarded plastic floating in the river before it is converted into valuable secondary products such as fencing poles, roofing tiles and furniture boards.

The system consists of a wire mesh that helps to trap the plastics and other waste in the river, and a conveyor that automatically removes the captured waste from the river.

According to Owino, the system is specifically designed for the Kenyan context, with the capture device installed at strategic positions within the water bodies.

After the waste has been captured, the plastics are removed, segregated according to their types and colours, and transported to the recycling facility where the technical process begins.

“In the facility the plastic waste is shredded then mixed with either sand or powdered glass waste in a ratio of 1:1. After achieving a uniform mixture, it is heated in the densification machine to form a broth, which is then put into molds of different shapes to form different types of blocks and pavers,” explains Owino.

They deal with all types of plastics. “This includes polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, low density polyethylene (LDPE), nylon and polypropylene (PP), high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC),” he adds.

They are currently waiting for test results from the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (Kirdi), before they can start distributing their products.

“But we have already begun trials with cabro (paving blocks) laying on pavements at the roundabout area in Kariobangi,” says Owino.

Inspired by their passion to address the marine plastic pollution menace, Owino and his team of four drawn from different professions started the company in 2017.

“Based on preliminary scientific study establishing that up to five million tonnes of plastic flows into the marine environment with 80 per cent of plastic waste coming from major rivers that flow through urban areas, we had to step in,” he says.

Their devices are installed at the Nairobi and Athi rivers.

“Our decision to pitch tent in the specific areas follows a Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute report which showed that 60 per cent of plastics found in the Indian Ocean comes from these rivers,” he adds.

The team is currently recycle 15 tonnes of plastic waste per month.

“Seven tonnes are PET bottles (water and soda), four tonnes are LDPE, two tonnes are nylon and PP, while the remaining two tonnes consist of HDPE, PVC and other types of plastic polymer waste,” he says.

This is quite a noble act by the team in a country where rivers and other bodies are chocking with plastic waste, but it is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to tackling the issue.

According to Joyce Gachugi, Kenya PET Recycling Company (PETCO) country Manager, a total of 16,000 tonnes, has been recycled since the company was formed in 2018. This is about 21 per cent of all the PET produced in the country over the last three years (25,000 tonnes per annum).

But even with this effort, the plastic waste menace is far from being completely dealt with in Kenya, especially in the capital where plastic litter is common on most streets. During rainy seasons, they clog the drainage,  rendering many roads impassable.

According to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) National Solid Waste Management Strategy, 2014, Nairobi, produces an average of 2,400 tonnes of waste per day, 30 per cent of which is plastic. A 2018 UN Environment Programme report indicated that 20 per cent of plastic waste generated in the city every day is plastic.

In a December 2020 article by Al Jazeera, Nema’s Director for Compliance and Enforcement Zephaniah Ouma said Kenya recycles only 15 per cent of all the plastic waste it produces.

So why does the war against plastic waste seem like a long shot for Kenya? Owino blames it on the massive cost of establishing recycling facilities.

“Proper infrastructure for a recycling plant like this requires approximately Sh20 million as capital,” he says.

But perhaps that is one among many problems plaguing the sector.

According to Gachugi, licensing and the regulatory framework hinder establishment of recovery centres and take-back schemes.

“There are also numerous licenses required for moving and handling recyclable materials. The costs accrued in obtaining these licenses, coupled with inter-county fees when moving materials from one county to the next reduce the margins for collectors,” she explains.

She also mentions the lack of proper policy to guide packaging design with a focus on recycling.

“This has led to the situation where we have multi-coloured bottles in our beverage sector, which pose a challenge when recycling,” she says. Owino supports this, saying sorting the many colours means extra cost.

Gachugi adds that there is no enforcement of segregation at source (households and commercial buildings).

“Most municipal waste is collected as mixed waste, which leads to contamination of recyclable products, forcing recyclers to use more energy and water to decontaminate the materials before recycling can begin,” she notes.

She points out that consumer awareness and education to sensitise the public on their individual responsibility in waste management is very minimal.

All in all, she says massive steps have been taken towards winning the war against the plastic waste challenge in the country.

“With the drafting and hopefully enactment of the Extended Producer Responsibility Regulations (EPR) 2021, as well as the National Sustainable Waste Management Bill, 2020, we will see more investment being directed towards recycling in the country,” she concludes.