Al Jazeera’s global talk show South 2 North, Redi Tlhabi chats about waste with Kenyan Cecilia Njenga, head of United Nations Environmental Programme; Canadian Melanie Samson, African waste sector specialist at WIEGO and post-doctoral fellow at The Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI); and South African Jason Drew, environmental capitalist and co-founder of AgriProtein.
“Waste management is increasingly becoming one of the greatest challenges, particularly for a highly urbanizing world,” says Cecilia. “In most of our cities, particularly in Africa, we are increasingly seeing municipalities not having the capacity to manage this waste. A lot of this waste is being strewn along the roadsides; we’re seeing it in dump sites; we’re seeing the health effects of this waste, affecting our children here in Africa; we are seeing increasingly, particularly, clean water being effected by the seepage of pollutants from the waste… We need to take some urgent action.”
Melanie says African governments and municipalities have historically tried to adopt formal recycling programmes from advanced European economies. “These have proven to be completely inappropriate socially and in terms of achieving recycling goals,” she says.
She uses the example of Cairo, which had reached one of the highest recycling rates in the world – 80% – “completely through the work of informal waste collectors.”
“When the municipality finally decided to adopt a formal recycling programme, instead of creating contracts with the people who were already doing the work and had been doing so for decades, they gave contracts to private companies. Whereas the recycling rate was around 80%, they only required the private companies to recycle 20% of the waste.”
She says there are more labour-intensive alternatives to the high-tech and “financially unsustainable” models of waste management currently being adopted around the world. “For example in Mumbai in India, there’s a system where waste pickers that are affiliated with an organisation get contracts with companies and with different areas of the city to collect their waste. They sell the recyclables and they take the organics and instead of sending them to landfills to be buried they have biodigesters that are located within those sites themselves that produce compost that can be used and also produce energy that can be used for electricity and to generate heat.”
She says there’s a stigma associated with waste-pickers. “Virtually every society has some kind of taboo about dealing with waste and dirt and people who take on this work have to confront this.”
She says part of confronting this is seeing the naming of these people as a political issue. “In Brazil, the people who do this work call themselves collectors of re-usable and recyclable material. In most of Spanish-speaking Latin America, they call themselves recyclers. The reason why they’ve chosen these terms is because they want to emphasise that they’re not just picking through waste, they are searching for valuable materials and they are actually retrieving things of value from the waste.”
She adds, “I find it quite ironic that we as residents discriminate against the people who go through the rubbish and we’re repulsed that they will go through our waste instead of being repulsed with ourselves for producing so much waste.”
Jason explained his award-winning AgriProtein product, Magmeal, which turns organic waste into high-protein feed for animals.
“A third of all of the fish we take out of the seas is ground up and made into fishmeal that goes into our industrial agricultural processes. We should leave our fish in the sea to be eaten by humans, not by farm animals,” he says. “We take what other people consider to be waste, that is full of useful nutrients, and we recycle through using the eggs of flies. Those eggs of flies grow into larvae, little wriggly things. We dry those and we feed them to animals like chickens and fish, It’s what they’d naturally eat so what we’re doing is simply recreating a natural process.”
AgriProtein is now developing a domestic and small-scale kit. “Everyone takes it for granted today that we should recycle our glass and plastic, but within 15 years from now you will consider it absolutely normal tor recycle your waste nutrients,” he says.
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