From trash to cash: How to turn waste back into a valuable resource
Worldwide heaps of waste are expected to double by 2015 according to the World Bank. The majority of it is burned, dumped into landfills or ends up in our oceans. The small minority of the waste we are producing is taken for what it really is: an important resource.
Rethinking products and raising awareness
The first step to tackle the problem is to shrink the amount of new waste being added. This can be done by redesigning products in a way that they produce less waste. For example, replacing one-way dishes from polystyrene by one-way dishes made from plant leaves or which are biodegradable, as SEED Winners Tambul Leaf Plates and PROVOKAME demonstrate in India and Colombia.
A second way is to raise awareness among people, to reduce the number of products and food being thrown away as well as to prevent the waste from ending up on the streets, in backyards or burned. Targeting local village associations, or schools with information programmes and setting up waste bins in town can often serve wonders.
Picking up what others have thrown away
We won’t be able to reduce our waste to zero, and what still is thrown away has to be collected first before it can be turned into a resource. While in OECD countries almost 100% of the waste is collected, in low-income countries less than half is (World Bank). One of the reasons is the limited capacity and efficiency of existing collection efforts by national governments and municipalities. Here often waste pickers, or private enterprises jump in to fill the gap.
But how do you efficiently collect waste in scattered rural communities or large urban areas? Two SEED Award Winners lead by example. P.E.A.C.E-Thinana Recycling Cooperative found a solution for its area in rural Limpopo, South Africa: For the more densely populated city centre, its members walk by foot using carts to increase the amount of waste they can collect, for a radius of up to 8 km donkey-drawn carriages are used. In Maputo, Mozambique, COMSOL Cooperative for Environmental Solutions in addition to using hand-drawn carts and buying from individual collectors, is working on a collection service for residential and commercial areas.
The systems cannot collect all the waste in their areas, but they are a first step to increase collection efforts. In particular, forming allies of waste pickers and coordinating between agencies, is a challenging but crucial task to collect larger quantities of waste, and to increase the bargaining when selling the waste in order to improve living conditions for waste pickers, which are often from the most vulnerable parts of the population.
Making waste reusable
Reusing waste does not stop with the collection, the next steps are sorting, cleaning and often also baling of the waste or turning it into pellets. Which waste types (plastic bottles, plastic sheets, aluminium cans, etc.) are needed and in which form and packaging, depends on the demand of processing industries and the possibilities of the collecting enterprises.
In the best case, the waste can then be sold directly to the processing industries. However, often no or only a few manufacturing companies exist locally. Selling to middlemen can then be one option, which for example has been used by P.E.A.C.E-Thinana in the early stages of operations. While it is easier to access middlemen, on the downside it reduces sales prices and limits the possibility to target waste quality and preparation to the needs of end-users.
Many small-scale enterprises in the business of collecting waste have to overcome two key challenges: first, finding sufficient capital to invest in machines that increase the efficiency of their processes and quality of their product, like baling or pelleting machines. Second, accessing final customers for all types of materials that they are collecting, as few local manufacturing industries exist.
Turning waste into a new resource
Clients of enterprises such as P.E.A.C.E-Thinana or COMSOL turn the waste into new products - aluminium cans back into aluminium cans or used plastics into water pipes. However, for many products demand of industries is still low, in particular in developing countries with a small manufacturing sector. For this reason, ComSol had to stop the collection of paper, simply because there was no demand for it.
One solution for enterprises is to cover the complete value chain, from collecting to turning waste into new products. In Kenya EcoPost buys waste from waste pickers and turns it into long-lasting fencing posts. Or, in Mozambique, Terra Nova Waste to Farming recycles organic waste which accounts for almost half of global waste production (World Bank). The enterprise receives waste collected by the municipality of Beira, Mozambique, separates the organic waste and turns it into natural fertiliser. The fertiliser is sold mainly to local smallholder farmers to grow vegetables, significantly increase yields and therefore farmer incomes.
What better use of waste can you think of?
You have a business idea to decrease the world’s waste heaps? Apply by 21 March for the 2016 SEED Awards!