To mitigate the effects of climate change, the linear process of extracting materials from the earth to produce goods that end up as waste is being remodelled into a sustainable loop. In a circular economy, three principles are upheld: stop the production of waste and pollution in the first place, circulate existing products and materials to prolong use and slow down the rate of disposal and regenerate nature.
It dissociates economic activity from the consumption of finite resources to renewable energy materials that are good for business, communities, and the environment. The circular economy gives us the tools to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss together while addressing important social needs.
Like any other framework, circular economies need iteration. For example, although Kenya has attempted to address plastic pollution through the ban on single-use plastic, improvements to solid waste management, and administrative and budgetary responses, communities are one part of the trifecta that isn’t benefitting as they should.
Exploitative sector practices
Typically, the informal recycling sector (IRS) is made up of poor and marginalised workers (rural migrants, the unemployed, the disabled, women, and children) who collect, recover and recycle waste as a source of income. Day to day, this entails gathering recyclable materials from open dumpsites and selling them to middlemen for sorting and aggregating.
Globally the IRS involves approx. 15 million people globally, a number that is responsible for 58% of the world’s collected and recycled plastic waste. The sector is beneficial to strained municipalities, which tend to lack the resources to establish and maintain comprehensive formal waste management systems, and the businesses and middlemen who often earn large profits when they sell sorted, cleaned, and processed materials to manufacturers.
But waste pickers who are exposed to daily occupational health hazards, social exclusion, and exploitation due to the negative connotation associated with their work and lack benefits because the sector is unregulated, do not receive payment commensurate to their work or the value of the collected waste.
Innovation in circular economies
Kenyan based tech-enabled plastics recycling company (for clarity the company is based in Kenya but is led by a man of Swiss heritage. Foreign ownership and leadership is something that many Kenyan start-ups currently have in common), Mr Green Africa (MGA) is offering an in-house end-to-end process for waste recycling by purchasing directly from their sourcing agents or waste pickers. At their series of trading hubs across Nairobi and Kisumu, MGA receives and buys collected plastics that are then processed and sold as post-consumer recycled plastics to manufacturers for use by large fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies.
By dealing directly with waste pickers MGA is formalising the sector using technology-enabled information flow and transactions that provide reliable pricing and significant income improvement.
According to the Global Innovation Fund, using this model MGA recycled 1,600 metric tonnes of plastic waste in 2020 for an estimated 4.8 million kg of CO2 emissions saved per annum and empowered 640 waste pickers.
After securing its latest round of funding, the company plans on creating a new sourcing system that integrates consumers from all income brackets. They will be incentivised to deposit plastic waste into the MGA collection systems. MGA also wants to increase the capacity of its production plant to process 15-20,000 MT of plastic waste from the broader East Africa region.
Speaking about this fete the company website details, “Our ability to attract impact investors who embody sustainable environmental and social impact practices re-affirms our commitment to the critical plastics supply chain stakeholders, who will ensure business decisions are guided by industry best practice and remain future- proof, whilst continuously turning WASTE TO VALUE.”
Even as companies like MGA work to uplift waste pickers, the solution lies in organisation and mobilisation. A Grid Lines white paper explains that by organising, waste pickers can strengthen their bargaining position, become actors in the development process, and overcome poverty through grassroots development. Unions and cooperatives would not only push waste pickers into formality and higher incomes, but also help destigmatise a sector essential to the fight against climate change.