Thu, Oct 11, 2018 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Africa tries to turn piles of plastic garbage into cash

Thomson Reuters Foundation, YAOUNDE

A policewoman works at a traffic light in Yaounde, Cameroon, on Tuesday.

Photo: Reuters

Cameroon Prince Djabea, 15, stamps on a plastic bottle as if squashing a cockroach, then using the heel of his other foot, flicks the bottle cap through the air with a pop.

He is not showing off the latest street dance craze in Douala, Cameroon’s commercial capital, but taking part in one of the country’s biggest plastic recycling schemes, which strives to turn waste into something useful while cleaning up the environment.

Behind Djabea, about 30 teenagers gather plastic bottles clogging up drainage canals and gutters, while others go door to door asking residents for their plastic garbage.

It is all loaded into giant tarpaulin sacks that are weighed at the end of the day and then sent to be remade into shoes, chairs and floor tiles, among other products.

The initiative led by RED-PLAST — brainchild of 30-year-old environmental engineer Alain Rodrigue Ngonde Elong — also operates in Yaounde and collects 100 to 150 tonnes of plastic waste per year — about the weight of 55 African forest elephants.

Elong came up with the idea as a student in Douala.

“You just saw the garbage, the plastic everywhere you looked,” he told reporters, describing open drainage channels lining the streets blocked by plastic bottles.

In the rainy season, the channels overflowed and attracted mosquitoes, which bred, and in turn increased rates of malaria and dengue fever among local inhabitants, Elong said.

“No one had a solution for it,” he added.

Elong’s team works on the problem by organizing a month-long garbage collection campaign every quarter, employing everyone from teenagers eager for work experience to street children needing cash.

In the past few years, young activists and entrepreneurs across West and Central Africa have launched a host of creative solutions to tackle the problem of discarded plastic.

In towns and villages across Africa, street vendors collect plastic bottles and refill them with goods to sell, from peanuts and oil to fresh juice and even fuel.

Yet, despite growing efforts across Africa to reuse plastic, much of the waste continues to blight local environments as litter — and is burned or buried in the ground.

Around the world, researchers estimate that about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste leak from land into the sea each year.

A major challenge is changing individual behavior, Elong said.

“Some people tell me: ‘I haven’t eaten for two days — why should I care about recycling plastics?’” he told reporters.

In response, he tells the people that recycling can help them earn money to improve their lives, while also benefiting the environment.

“At the end of the day, we need to make people understand that recycling is profitable,” Elong said.

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