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The Green evolution: How do we build a cleaner and more sustainable Africa?

After five years in the business, Ian Dommisse, Director and Project Manager of the EcoBrick Exchange, believes that the global campaign against single-use plastics, and specifically plastic straws, helped to create a single focus point for the problem of the worldwide waste mountain. But while he welcomes the conversation, Dommisse is also realistic about what needs to be done to minimise waste and the damage it does to the environment.

Targeting the use of plastic straws, he says, is like “the small person standing in the middle of the burning house.”

In 2012, 2% of South African landfill was made up of food packaging; 18% is construction rubble and 30% is organic food waste, Dommisse explains. Food waste produces methane, which adds to the negative impact on the environment.

In addition, a third of all plastic recycled is clear plastic bottles. Eighty percent of clear plastic that the formal recycling industry receives is collected from the informal sector, but is often contaminated. It’s more difficult to recycle contaminated waste. “So if the only one thing that people do was to separate their food waste from the rest of all of their domestic waste it would make reclaiming the recyclables so much easier because they wouldn’t be contaminated,” says Dommisse.

Infrastructure is a consideration too. Many landfill sites aren’t constructed properly, says Dommisse: “Landfills should have a concrete lining to stop leakage, but many don’t have that. Water saturates the ground and soft plastics start to break down, creating microplastics that are carried into the ground water.”

Dommisse says that cost and service delivery are additional factors. South Africans pay 25% of what many countries pay for their waste to be managed. He also points out that in many areas, waste management becomes a lower priority if other basic services — such as decent sanitation — are not delivered. Dommisse says: “If we’re only paying a quarter of what other countries pay, and we combine that with the lack of service delivery in many areas, can we be surprised that our system is failing?”

All of this highlights just how great the challenge is to build a clean and sustainable Africa — at least in terms of waste management. So what’s the solution?

Technology does have a part to play in, for example finding new ways to process waste at an industrial scale. But for EcoBrick Exchange and recycling operators like Regenize, an alumni start-up of Solution Space Venture Incubation Programme, a low-tech approach can be just as effective. And the actions of individuals lie at the centre of the solution.

Chad Robertson, Chief Executive Officer, and Nkazimlo Miti, Chief Operations Officer, for Regenize, suggest that recycling is the easiest place to start educating people on a more environmental mindset.

Miti describes three levels of waste management: reduce, reuse, recycle. The first two pillars are the foundation for building a circular economy that can contribute to a cleaner Africa. However, the third, recycling is the easiest place to start.

Regenize’s focus is on removing as many obstacles as possible for people who want to recycle. “For people to do it, it needs to be easy,” says Robertson.

The Regenize model offers a service that collects recyclable household waste, measured in kilograms, in exchange for an alternative currency, called Remali, which can be used to purchase airtime, clothing, gift cards and other products. The waste is collected by a network of operators who use tricycles fitted with cages.

The current Regenize pilot service is free, and is being rolled out in Bridgetown, Athlone, Cape Town. Customers can sign up online, monitor their contributions and Remali account via a website, and are reminded about collections by SMS every week. Customers are educated on what can and can’t be recycled, too, which is an important factor in successfully building a recycling culture.

This was the principle that formed the basis for the EcoBrick Exchange. The company has developed a process that enables people to upcycle waste that cannot be recycled, such as chip packets, into bricks made of two-litre bottles. The bottles are tightly packed and displace ordinary wall material. Stacked within a framed structure EcoBricks need to be shielded from the elements by boarding or plastering and, if the correct building method is applied, they can be recycled over and over, given the long life span of PET plastic bottles.

The ideal EcoBrick Exchange model is for the community to ‘build’ the bricks at home and donate the bricks to a centralised hub. Trained building contractors would use the bricks as materials on building projects which, says Dommisse, is a different specialized skill in the construction industry. While consumers form one part of the cycle, the building industry also has an important part to play in changing how people see waste. The company is working on creating a funding model that supports skills development, with a view to developing a cohort of skilled EcoBrick building contractors.

Building a clean and sustainable Africa is a complex task that requires innovation, resources and political will. But both Regenize and EcoBrick Exchange have developed ways that make it easier for individuals to take personal responsibility for recycling properly, in a relatively low-tech environment. Large-scale change starts with small steps in the right direction.

The wave of support that the EcoBrick Exchange has gathered since it started in 2013 has grown, reinforcing Dommisse’s point about recycling being the individual responsibility of everyone: “Preventing waste from entering the environment in the first place is the best solution.”

Miti also agrees: “Once we achieve a culture of recycling we can start focusing more on the zero-waste lifestyle, which is the ultimate aim for a clean, sustainable Africa.”

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