Across the world, plastic is one of the most used materials, but managing end-of-life plastic products remains a seemingly intractable challenge. However, there are signs of green shoots around us that promise to unleash a revolution around better plastic waste management.
While much ground remains uncovered, more and more businesses are opting to recycle, upcycle and reuse plastic waste as the concept of circular economy gains currency.
It is an important step towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 that encourages responsible consumption and production.
German sportswear firm Adidas early last year, for instance, constructed a football field in the United States using 1.8 million plastic bottles and handed it over to a high school.
It was an iconic demonstration of the role manufacturers around the world can play in not only managing plastic waste but going a step further to putting it to much better use.
By Adidas transforming discarded plastic into a sustainable playfield, it added value to the original plastic material – a concept called up-cycling within sustainability circles.
While recycling creates a circular economy by reusing waste material along the same value chain for production, upcycled waste gets repurposed by being turned into entirely new products, often of higher value.
Repurposed plastic can be used to create works of art, for instance, or in Adidas case, a turf soccer pitch and a traditional sailing boat (FlipFlopi) for environmentalists at the Kenyan coast.
To this end, both recycling and upcycling serve the same purpose – they seek to reduce plastic pollution on land and oceans and prolong the economic value of used material. Rapid urbanisation has come along with increased consumerism, pushing up the mountain of waste generated by households and individuals.
In the absence of proper waste disposal infrastructure, most plastic waste ends up in unplanned dumpsites while the rest is washed into rivers and eventually oceans.
Closer home, manufacturers in Kenya have stepped up recycling of plastic bottles, converting the single-use packaging materials to brushes, brooms, clotheslines, pegs and drinking straws.
Industry data shows that a total of 300 million bottles weighing 7,700 tonnes were processed by the country’s recyclers in 2019 in the process minting thousands of new jobs.
Kenya generates up to 21,000 tonnes of plastic annually, out of which only 30 percent is recycled.
To further boost the practice, Kenyans industrialists, through their lobby, the Kenya Association Manufacturers (KAM) came together with retailers in 2018 under PET Recycling Company (Petco Kenya) to spearhead recycling of the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles.
The idea was to create a circular recycling value chain with producers and retailers launching various take-back schemes to facilitate participation of consumers in the process.
Some of the brand owners working with Petco include Coca Cola, Unilever Naivas, Tuskys, Kevian Kenya, Bio foods, Highlands Mayers Water, Peptang, Mazuri Water, CCBA, Almasi Beverages, Coastal bottlers, and Bidco Africa.
And it’s not just big companies that are causing waves. Smaller ones are equally making their recycling mark on the map. Take the case of Gjenge Makers, for instance. The startup, founded by 28-year old female innovator, Nzambi Matee, is in the business of manufacturing affordable and sustainable building materials such as paving tiles from recycled plastic waste. She recently won the Young Champions of the Earth 2020 organised by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
However, despite these efforts to reduce waste generation, the plastic recycling sector remains very fragmented and relatively immature, factors that are holding back recycling efficiency, innovation and profitability.
It is precisely why Kenya Climate Innovation Centre (KCIC) in partnership with What Design Can Do(WDCD) recently launched the #NoWasteChallenge, a global competition that seeks to award innovative winners who will have submitted innovative solutions that can help rethink our production and consumption cycle.
Do you believe your company, startup or organization uses more renewable materials and keep recycling at the centre of the value proposition? Apply for the global competition here: https://www.kenyacic.org/