How WasteAid is helping the Gambia tackle chronic waste management problems

Written by: Victoria Manning | Published:
Residents are taught how to make paved tiles made from low-density polyethylene

Here in the UK we are busy trying to improve recycling rates and divert waste from landfill.

Meanwhile, there are three billion people worldwide without access to solid waste. Without a formal service, people either have to dump or burn their waste. Even where collection services exist, for example in urban areas, the waste is often still taken to uncontrolled dumpsites.

Open dumping and burning of waste causes many serious health problems, pollutes the environment and has economic consequences. Open dumps encourage vermin, poison air, agricultural land and groundwater, and often result in waste entering the sea and harming marine life. Investment in solid waste management is crucial to delivering many of the Sustainable Development Goals, but is often overlooked by politicians.

WasteAid is a UK charity set up by waste management professionals to work with organisations in lower-income countries. The charity aims to make an impact on the global waste emergency by sharing recycling skills to create green jobs, improve public health, and protect the environment. WasteAid operates at a very local level with communities that have no waste management system in place.

UK Aid project in the Gambia

The coastal village of Gunjur in the Gambia is a typical community with no solid waste management, and where residents are consequently forced to either dump or burn their waste. WasteAid has now trained 30 locals in Gunjur in turning plastic waste into paving tiles, but the story starts further east, in rural Cameroon.

WasteAid’s plastics specialist Pierre Kamsouloum grew up in a poor family in northern Cameroon, in an area with no waste management service. From childhood, Kamsouloum played around the local dump site, sometimes melting down plastic waste to make a ball to play with. As he grew older, Kamsouloum scavenged from the dump site collecting materials to sell.

He had one set of clothes and would have to wash them each night ready for the next day. Remembering how he made balls from plastic waste, he experimented melting down low-density polyethylene (LDPE), such as carrier bags and plastic wrap, and mixing it with sand, and eventually developed the process to make paving tiles and other building materials.

Now Kamsouloum runs his own business in Cameroon where the tiles have been certified as an approved construction product. Kamsouloum’s tiles are stronger and more durable than concrete tiles: they last a long time because they use the persistence of plastic as an asset.

Kamsouloum teamed up with WasteAid a few years ago and now shares his skills with other communities that lack waste management services. The opportunity to bring Kamsouloum to the Gambia to implement the plastics recycling programme came when WasteAid won a Small Charities Challenge Fund grant from UK Aid.

The two-year funding sees WasteAid working in partnership with TARUD, a local community development organisation, and Women’s Initiative – the Gambia (WIG) to train disadvantaged women, young people and people with disabilities to turn plastic waste from a pollution problem into an economic asset.

In November 2018, WasteAid’s Zoë Lenkiewicz and volunteer Jen Robertson visited Gunjur to gather baseline information about waste in the village. Employing Robertson's experience with Keep Britain Tidy, they designed: a street-level litter survey; a dumpsite survey to determine the number of, and hazards present at, the many local dumpsites; and an attitudes and behaviours survey.

All three surveys were carried out by members of WIG and will be undertaken at key milestones throughout the project lifespan, with a view to tracking any improvements.

While carrying out the surveys, WIG began speaking with local people about the impacts of plastic waste on public health, livestock and the environment. This awareness-raising will continue long after the WasteAid training programme is complete.

The first training took place in January 2019. Lenkiewicz and Kamsouloum were joined by WasteAid’s Mike Webster and volunteers Dave Leeke and myself.

Participants were given safety training and provided with protective clothing, including overalls, boots, gloves and face masks. Next the trainees learnt how to identify the right type of plastic to make the tiles and weigh out exactly the right amount of plastic and sand. In a well-ventilated workshop, the trainees melted the plastic in a specially prepared barrel, added sand and mixed it thoroughly to produce a cement-like texture.

They transferred the completed mix to the tile moulds and within 15 minutes the tiles were set. Everyone involved was very excited to see the first batch of completed tiles from the Gunjur plastics project, and lots of people from the village dropped by to see the workshop activities in full swing.

WasteAid trained 30 participants from Gunjur over a two-week programme, and at the closing ceremony each received a certificate of competence. They will work as a team to collect, sort, process and market the products, using the skills and preferences of each participant. Over the next year, a further 60 people from the village will be trained to take part in the programme.

In addition, eight trainers from WIG are now able to spread this knowledge to other rural communities in the Gambia, and WasteAid will be training a further 16 trainers over the remaining funded period.

While in the Gambia, Lenkiewicz and I took the opportunity to meet with the country’s planners. They explained that dumpsitesare often surrounded by development but rapid urbanisation and competition for land makes finding suitable locations to replace open dumpsites with environmentally safe landfill sites very difficult. This shows that the challenges of waste management really are universal – finding a suitable site is often the biggest hurdle to overcome, whether you are in Europe or rural Africa.

Spreading the knowledge further afield

Access to Kamsouloum’s process for making tiles is not limited to his training sessions in West Africa. WasteAid has produced Making Waste Work, an award-winning toolkit (funded by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management) which provides online step-by-step how-to guides for managing waste using no-cost or low-cost techniques, like Kamsouloum’s.

The toolkit includes instructions on how to make useful products from waste materials, including charcoal briquettes from woody waste, cooking gas from food waste, building materials from plastic bottles, and of course paving tiles from plastic bags. It also includes guides for measuring, collecting and small-scale disposal of waste. Since it was published in October 2017, more than 77,000 people in more than 200 countries have looked at the online toolkit.

WasteAid will be returning to Gunjur in June 2019 to train the next class of recyclers. In the meantime, the Gambia-based team will receive business training, and deliver a communications campaign informed by the attitude and behaviours survey.

There is already a lot of interest throughout the Gambia in the durable paving tiles. For a country with very little stone, hardy construction materials are particularly valuable. Momentum is also building to close the main dumpsite in the capital city, and WasteAid is now in talks with the International Solid Waste Association, the Mayor and other stakeholders to help develop a pro-poor, inclusive strategy for integrated waste management.

WasteAid is organising a major fundraising drive from 1 May to 31 July, and everyone is invited to get involved and help make a difference. Having seen the impact of this work first-hand, I can say it is well worth supporting WasteAid and its work in poor communities.

Victoria Manning is a WasteAid organiser and director of Vitaka Consulting.

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