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Trio goes fishing for plastic waste in urban rivers

By Faith Kyoumukama
Tuesday, February 9th, 2021
Chemolex founders, Clifford Okoth, Malcom Buluku and Robert Achoge. Photo/PD/FAITH KYOUMUKAMA
In summary
    • 300 million tonnes: plastic waste produced globally every year
    • 8.3 billion tonnes: estimate least amount of plastic waste produced since early 1950s
    • 60%: Percentage of plastic waste that has ended up in landfill or natural environment
    • 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas and coal — all of which are dirty, non-renewable resources
    • 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled
    • 25 African countries have banned plastic bags

Faith Kyoumukama @martkinel

Plastic waste is still a menace, with the world producing more than 300 million tonnes of this waste every year, with fear that if nothing is done, the world’s ocean will have more plastic than fish by 2050, the United Nation Environment Programme posits. 

This background, and impact of such waste on the environment and human and animal health pushed Malcom Buluku, Clifford Okoth and Robert Achoge, who run Chemolex, a clean energy waste management company, to set up an initiative known as Wajibika (Kiswahili for take responsibility) to change the narrative. 

“We realised most plastic waste originates from households and industries. The Wajibika initiative, therefore, seeks to influence behaviour change by encouraging personal responsibility when it comes to waste.

Plastic pollution in rivers is a menace that can’t only be addressed sustainably if riparian households and industries are actively involved in proper management of plastic and other wastes at individual levels,” Clifford says. 

The trio met at the University of Nairobi,  where they discovered their love for the environment and interest in reversing the effects of pollution. 

To achieve this Chemolex installed plastic capturing devices along Nairobi River, which cuts through Kariboangi.

“To fully achieve this, we introduced monthly clean up exercises. A typical clean-up day starts at 8am and volunteers from the immediate local community are briefed at the clean-up venue of waste separation, mostly organic and inorganic, handling drainages and the art of selling Wajibika to other members of the community,” says the team leader for Chemolex Ltd who guides the team in implementation of different projects within Nairobi and western Kenya. 

Government responsibility

Buluku, the company’s data scientist and recycling manager, says the main challenge at the beginning was mobilising residents to actively participate in the initiative on a voluntary basis.  

“From our experience, most of them believe managing wastes is the government’s responsibility, hence they should be paid to participate,” he explains.

With time, the youth in communities where the initiative has been introduced slowly embraced the cause. Buluku says it’s also a constructive way for them to spend their time. 

“Some of these areas before rehabilitation were dens of alcoholism and drugs. We approached such youth to champion the project to the larger population,” he explains. 

In Kariobangi, part of the riparian land is a park in the making, with carpet grass and trees fast growing. 

Buluku says there is a significant shift in the community’s mindset regarding waste management at individual levels. 

“According to different surveys we undertook in Kibra and Kariobangi after the clean-up, it was evident most households within these areas have started centralised garbage collection and sorting sites,” he says. 

In the past, such households would not hesitate disposing of their wastes in nearby river systems. Currently, it is no longer a major challenge as it were when they started the outreach programme.

Wajibika initiative runs in Kibra, Kariobangi and Tasia area. Achoge, director of communications, says they chose these estates due to their close proximity to urban river systems such as River Nairobi, Ngong and River Athi. 

“Our outreach programme has been centred on the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle). It, therefore, aims at training youth and women in creating value for different wastes generated within their communities.

So far we have created a prototype of pavement blocks made from recycled plastic waste. With enough plastic waste we intend to also produce tables, seats and other basic household items,” Achoge adds.

Policy development

Currently the company is working closely with various government bodies such as National Environmental Management Authority, water resources management authority and county governments. 

Achoge says their cooperation with government bodies has been centred on areas of licensing and developing policies that would encourage proper waste management at household levels. 

“The data we generate from the clean-up exercises and wastes captured by our innovative plastic-capture devices will be instrumental in informing policy development regarding urban wastes management,” he says.  

Buluku adds that the end goal for this particular project is to ensure waste is disposed of responsibly and greatly reduce the amount of plastic waste ends up in rivers, which eventually drain into the oceans seriously endangering marine life. 

“We also aim at training and equipping the youth and women in  Kibra, Kariobangi, Tassia, Dandora, Mathare and Korogocho to develop sustainable businesses by utilising different types of wastes to create valuable products such as construction materials and animal feeds.

Unless we create value for plastic waste, it will remain waste,” he says in conclusion.