The Solving Plastic Issue: In Depth

What to Do With Piles of Plastic Waste?

Other countries get creative.

The long-term solution to the plastics problem is stopping the flow at its source. But even if we were to magically achieve that today, the world would still be awash in nearly a century’s worth of plastic waste that has been accumulating in landfills and landscapes across the globe.

On Jan. 1, 2021, an agreement among 187 countries took effect to limit international trade in plastic scrap for “recycling” to prevent it from ending up in the environment. (The United States did not sign on.) Still, our plastic waste isn’t going away on its own. Cleaning it up is an urgent part of the solution. Communities around the world are turning plastic waste into the raw materials to build local infrastructure, create employment, and change the systems that have trapped them under the weight of the world’s plastic waste for far too long.—Breanna Draxler

Photo by Madalitso Wills Kateta.

Women Turn Waste Problem Into Jobs 

By Madalitso Wills Kateta

Every morning, well before sunrise, Rose Muhondo leaves her house at Kawale Township in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe for her daily garbage collection excursion. By the time the sun crests the horizon, Muhondo has already sorted two heaps of garbage—separating organic garbage from plastic waste at a waste management site run by Our World International, a local nonprofit that promotes sustainable waste management.

Founded eight years ago, OWI began as a project to change the mindsets of Kawale Township residents about the waste management problem in the area. Founder and executive director Steven Chiunjira believed the problem was not a physical one, but a “mental waste” problem that precluded residents from taking responsibility for the waste they produce. OWI addresses this waste problem through what Chiunjira calls the three E’s: education, entrepreneurship, and enjoyment.

Muhondo is one of the 60 Kawale women who, after gaining waste management skills from OWI, treks about an hour roundtrip to and from the site in Lilongwe.

There is a serious plastic waste disposal and sanitation problem in the area, Muhondo explains. Generating a half a kilogram of waste per capita per day, with a population of 174,291, Kawale catchment area generates 87,145.5 kilograms of waste per day. But since OWI started training women and youth in the area how to manage waste by turning it into useable products, there has been a 10% waste reduction.

“Many people do not understand the environmental impacts of plastic waste,” Muhondo says. “Carelessly disposed plastic usually piles in the location, causing a threat to our water sources.”

According to Muhondo almost all marketplaces in Kawale have piles of plastic, glass, and textile garbage, and the environment has been contaminated by the putrid smell from rotten garbage thrown along the streets and water sources.

A mother of four, Muhondo had financial problems before she became engaged in waste management work. For many years her only income was K30,000.00 (U.S. $38) a month from selling fresh vegetables, which depends on supplies from other farmers. Today, garbage management has become her primary source of income. Clearing an average of more than 130 pounds of waste per day, Muhondo turns the soluble garbage into organic manure that she sells for MK2,000.00 (U.S. $2.50) for 110 pounds. She sells the recyclable plastic waste for recycling. She earns MK40,000.00 (U.S. $50) a month from the manure and plastic waste sales and a MK20,000.00 (U.S. $25) monthly allowance from OWI. 

Like many residents of Kawale, Muhondo is also involved in subsistence agriculture in the nearby Chiuzila village where she uses some of the compost she makes. Malawi is an agriculture-based economy, with about 84.5% of the country’s labor force engaged in agricultural production. Land degradation because of improper disposal of plastic waste means that farmers have difficulty making ends meet due to reduced food production, according to a study by the Lilongwe Wild Life Trust. The study indicated that 79% of the country’s plastic waste since 1950 has ended up in landfills or the natural environment threatening the country’s biodiversity.

Catherine Chitokoto, another of the women involved in the waste management program, says they are turning the waste into different products such as biomass, fire briquettes, door mats and organic compost, which she says are later sold within the community.

“The products that we make are very affordable, and are easing the energy challenges faced by low-income families in the area,” Chitokoto explains.

For example, Chitokoto says their biogas and fire briquettes are 50% cheaper than charcoal, which apart from having serious environmental consequences is expensive. Currently a kilogram of liquefied petroleum gas sells at MK1,952.00 (U.S. $2.50), while biogas from OWI sells at MWK950.00 (U.S. $1.20) per kilogram. A 50 Kg bag of charcoal costs around K10,000 (U.S. $12.72), while their briquettes sell at K5,000.00 (U.S. $6.36) for the same quantity, she adds. 

Poor plastic waste management is an issue of concern in low-income countries like Malawi. According to the World Bank, only 4% of waste is recycled in these low-income countries. The bank warns that, unmanaged, the amount of waste will continue to grow as the countries experience economic and population growth.

 Malawi produces 75,000 tons of plastic waste per year, 80% of which is single-use and cannot be recycled. According to  the Lilongwe Wild Life Trust study, Malawi produces more plastic waste per capita than any other sub-Saharan country and far exceeds the capacity of its waste management systems.

 The World Bank projects total waste generation in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to triple and double respectively by 2050, making up as much as 35% of total global waste.

With few solutions coming from the state, organizations like OWI are helping to provide solutions to the challenge that plastic pollution is having on the environment in the country. OWI’s Chiunjira says that since his organization started training women in Kawale, the women have been engaging in profitable ventures using the waste they collect.

“We collect mixed waste from houses and markets and we later separate the plastic waste from the organic material that we turn into manure, while the plastic waste that cannot be recycled is washed and turned into different materials like door mats,” Chiunjira says.

Since OWI has been in operation, the organization has collected 25,446,484 kilograms of waste and has managed to sell 1,526,789.04 kilograms for recycling, with an additional 1,017,859.36 kilograms cleaned and turned into usable items such as door mats. 

Tawonga Mbale-Luka, Director of the Environmental Affairs Department in Malawi’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy, and Mining, says that initiatives by nongovernmental organizations like OWI have assisted in addressing the garbage problem. But the effect is limited, he says, because of local authorities’ limited capacity to collect the waste, and few resources on the part of the waste management organizations.

“Going forward, Environmental Affairs Department is planning to come up with a proposal to have a total ban on thin plastics. One major issue that needs to be addressed is the need for sanitary landfills and incinerators, initially for the four cities,” says Mbale.

Malawi introduced a ban on the use of thin plastics in 2015. However, Mathews Malata, interim chairperson for the Movement for Environmental Action, a group of Malawian environmental activists that has been championing the ban, says the plastic problem in Malawi keeps growing as manufacturers persist in producing thin plastics, despite a 2019 ruling by the country’s supreme court which took a stand against their production.

“[W]e have been pushing for compliance to the ban and our initiatives have led to the conviction of some manufacturers who were violating the ban,” said Malata.

The government admits there is an issue of poor waste management in the country. At a public meeting in November 2020, Malawi’s president Lazarus Chakwera also suggested residents were part of the problem.

“People dump anywhere and everywhere. That is wrong and very hazardous to our environment,” Chakwera said, at the time.

Meanwhile, as environmental experts look at the problem of plastic pollution from an environmental perspective, for Muhondo, Chitokoto, and the other Kawale women engaged in garbage management, the education and entrepreneurial skills they’ve received from OWI have helped them to help themselves, and their community. 

Tasmania’s town of Snug paved this stretch of road with asphalt made with plastic waste—equivalent to two years of single-use plastic collected from the municipality, according to local officials. Photo from Kingborough Council.

A Road Paved With Plastic Asphalt  

By Natasha Chassagne

Driving along the quaint Charlton Street in the coastal town of Snug in Tasmania, Australia, you would not know that the roadway is made from the equivalent of 173,600 plastic bags, 5,900 used printer cartridges, and 82,500 glass bottles. But this small-town street has literally paved the way to sustainable methods of tackling the plastic crisis through recycled plastic asphalt that aims to reduce both plastic waste and carbon emissions for the region.

Tasmania is a picturesque island with a global reputation for its pristine air, land, and water. Local communities here strive to protect Tasmania’s unique ecosystems and marine environment. But the island is also the southernmost state of Australia, the country ranked 11th globally for waste produced per capita.

In 2018-2019, Australia produced 2.5 million metric tons of plastic waste. This plastic gets collected by local government councils, but only about 9% gets recycled.  Up to 70% of the country’s plastic waste was being exported to China until 2017, when the Chinese government placed a ban on waste imports. The Australian government then diverted much of its plastic waste to Southeast Asia, but many of these countries have since introduced their own restrictions on imports.

The production, export, and disposal of plastics contribute significantly to climate change. In 2019, global greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle were at 850 million metric tons per year—the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants. So Australia’s plastic waste crisis is closely tied to the climate crisis. 

As an island, Tasmania is very susceptible to the impacts of climate change, such as warmer oceans, extreme weather events, and sea-level rise. Finding ways to address plastic waste is therefore a major issue for the island’s future sustainability. “Generally, we are very aware of the need to recycle and accepting of new innovations in packaging and recycling methods,” says Chris Schuth, a Snug resident. Yet, 84% of plastic nationwide is still sent to landfills. Schuth argues, “Governments will need to find ways to make it easier to identify what can be recycled and how it is collected.”

That’s why Kingborough Council, which includes Snug as part of its electorate, has been repurposing plastic waste into local roads. Kingborough Mayor Dean Winter says the recycled asphalt is not only an environmental solution, but it also contributes to stronger local infrastructure. The plastics are melted down and mixed with crushed glass that cannot be recycled, rather than the sand traditionally used in asphalt. The result is a solid product that is flexible and can withstand heavy vehicle traffic. Being more durable, it is expected to last 15% longer, with an environmental impact from leaching comparable to regular asphalt. It is processed in such a way to prevent leaching and microplastic pollution.

One of the county’s partners in the project, not-for-profit group REDcycle, supplies the “soft” plastics. They established drop-off points at local supermarkets for shoppers to leave their used plastic grocery bags and other plastic packaging. Another project partner, private enterprise Close the Loop, has a collection program for ink and toner cartridges. The cartridges’ low melting point allows them to be turned into a valuable glue to replace fossil fuel-based bitumen. “Printer cartridges are made up of a complex mix of plastics, metal, inks, and toners and thus represent a significant investment in resources,” says Mayor Winter. “When they are disposed of into landfill these resources are lost. Council sees the value in supporting the recycling of these products as we are doing on our local roads.”

Both recycling programs rely on consumers to consciously recycle their waste, but by providing easy options for plastics recycling, they nudge consumers to act. This is based on a behavioral change science called Nudge Theory, coined by Oxford philosopher and neuroscientist James Wilk. It works on the premise that by introducing changes to the consumption environment, you can nudge people in the direction of making responsible decisions without taking away their freedom of choice.

Charlton Street was the first recycled plastic road in Tasmania, built in 2018 as a trial of the new surface material, called Reconophalt. Recycled plastic roads were first introduced in India in 2002 to deal with the country’s plastic pollution problem, and a growing number of countries have followed suit, including the U.K., Ghana, South Africa, The Netherlands, Slovakia, and Australia. The Tasmanian road is estimated to have reduced carbon emissions through the production of the material by more than 20% compared to a normal asphalt road, and prevented 14 kilograms (just over 30 pounds) of carbon dioxide production per metric ton, further reducing demand on fossil fuels.

Mayor Winter calls the plastic road trial a success, and over the past three years, the council has increased its use of the recycled asphalt product on local roads. “Last year recycled product made up around 80% of our sealing program,” he says.

The initiative demonstrates the importance of local government leadership coupled with community practice in the face of a growing crisis. “I am very happy to hear they are doing something constructive in this area,” says Snug resident Schuth. It encourages consumers who might otherwise be cynical. He says, it “creates an awareness of a positive conclusion to recycling. Hopefully it will encourage us all to be more active.”

Mayor Winter says Kingborough Council has had the support of the community. “They could see the environmental benefits of reusing materials that may have otherwise ended up in landfill,” he says.  Mayor Winter has since been approached by local residents, other councils, and people across the country about doing the same on their roads. Other local governments are now following suit, including Hobart City Council, the local government authority for Tasmania’s capital city. They’re starting with a trial in the northwest suburb of Lenah Valley.

The tangible community benefits can also help reinforce positive behavior.  “It’s a way to reduce the use of other building supplies, and is also a way we can build sustainable infrastructure that incorporates some of our waste,” says Lenah Valley resident Heidi Laugesen. “[It’s] a great local project that can start some conversations and get more people thinking about soft plastics—the benefits of reducing and reusing them.”

While the roads are an example of the latter, there is growing community awareness around the need for the former. “The more we can recycle the better,” Laugesen says. “Still, we need to reduce our usage of soft plastics in the first place.” She argues that this change starts from the bottom, and that for conscious communities, “there are always ways in which we can do more, think differently, and be leaders in how we tackle the many problems associated with climate change.”

Photo by Tonderayi Mukeredzi.

Building Materials a New Market for Trash

By Tonderayi Mukeredzi

Laden with a large sack on her back, Cynthia Guzuzu ardently scavenges through garbage bins in her neighborhood. Her daily grind is to collect plastic waste anywhere she sees it.   

“My day normally begins around 7 a.m. when I get into town to collect plastic from bins on the streets, cages at major supermarkets, and sometimes from the dump, up until 7 p.m.,” says the 46-year-old mother of three. 

“I sell the collected plastic for 20 cents a kilogram, and that has helped me to sustain the family for the past five years.”

Zimbabwe has not escaped the global flood of plastic waste and microplastics that threaten human health and the environment. In 2014, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) released its Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan, which stated that the country’s urban centers generated an average of 1.65 million metric tons of waste in 2011—18% of that being plastic waste. This represents a major source of air, soil, and water pollution. By 2030, EMA projects the country will produce more than 5 million metric tons of solid waste per year, with urban centers grinding out about 2 million metric tons.

Increased refuse generation in urban centers has led to the indiscriminate dumping of solid waste, which clogs waterways, blocks sewer systems, and provides convenient breeding grounds for vectors such as mosquitoes that spread malaria. Garbage pollution also causes diarrhea as well as cholera, typhoid, and other bacterial diseases. In the absence of disposal infrastructure and services, many urban residents burn their solid waste or bury it, adding to environmental pollution.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, so proper disposal is critical to avoid it ending up in our landfills, fresh water bodies, and oceans.

“We wanted a solution to plastic waste as well as a profitable solution that would also improve the lives of people as much as it improved our environment,” says Fadzai Munyuki, the managing director and one of four co-founders of a waste management start-up called Kudiwa Waste and Energy Solutions (KWES).

The company started operating in 2018, inspired by the need to contribute to a clean environment. KWES is based in the city of Chinhoyi, which is a 120-kilometer (75-mile) drive northwest of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Its business is to recycle plastic waste to produce eco-friendly and durable construction materials. 

KWES is manufacturing roughly 4,000 pavers per month, and much more when demand is high. The pavers are used to build driveways, walkways, and for landscaping. Very soon, the company will begin producing roof tiles and has future plans to venture into wood-plastic composites. 

Creating Jobs By Cleaning Up

Apart from reducing waste and promoting a clean environment, KWES is providing jobs to several youths. The lack of employment opportunities in the formal sector is very high in Zimbabwe, especially among the youth, which makes this work particularly valuable. 

Three permanent and nine contract staff work in the production facility sorting out the waste, heating it, mixing it with cement and colorants, and molding it into pavers. And KWES provides consistent incomes to about 25 women from poor households in the community, including Cynthia Guzuzu. The women supply the company with plastic waste they collect from the streets, outside supermarkets, and in dumps.

“The collection is helping immensely in clearing the environment from plastic waste,” says Sydney Mutandi, a coordinator with Waste Paper Collection, a community-based organization. He says they collect no less than 10 metric tons of plastic waste per month for sale to recycling companies.

“But the collectors need to be paid well to motivate them to keep collecting the waste,” Mutandi says. “The challenge is that sometimes the plastic waste buyers offer ridiculously low prices which discourages the women from collecting the waste.”

“Space is also a problem,” he adds. “Most of the community-based organizations don’t have sufficient space to store their plastic waste. Usually, they stock the waste at their homes and… their homes aren’t big enough to accommodate a ton of plastic waste.”

And the problem is only getting bigger. Simbarashe Maduuro, EMA Chinhoyi’s environmental planning and monitoring officer, says plastic waste is an emergency issue for the city of 77,929 people. He points to a 2019 waste characterization survey EMA conducted in the city, which found that a single person produced about a third of a kilogram (three-fourths of a pound) of waste per day.

On a national scale, Zimbabwe’s Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan promotes recycling as a way to get to a green economy and a sustainable environment, but environmental authorities say that the uptake of recycling remains slow, handicapped largely by a persistent culture of mixed dumping followed by the traditional landfilling of waste.

Maduuro of EMA, however, says community-based organizations are doing a tremendous job of removing and recycling substantial quantities of plastic waste under a national program to convert trash to cash.

“We work with many community-based organizations who do waste collection, waste sorting, and then others go on to recycle the waste to make various products from the waste,” he says. “One organization can collect between six and seven [metric] tons of plastic waste per month. One of them, Shingirirai, retrieved about 2.5 [metric] tons of waste of plastic waste from the dumpsite in January.”

By removing plastic, along with the risks to human and environmental health that come with it, community-based organizations are working to improve the health of their communities. Every month, KWES recycles between 4 and 8 metric tons of plastic waste, and they’re looking to expand.

“Plastic waste is a very affordable raw material and recycling is a sustainable business idea,” Munyuki says. “Our business is helpful to the environment and the products we make are in demand, so the future is very bright for us.”

Tonderayi Mukeredzi is a Zimbabwean journalist who covers politics, business, environment, education, and social justice for international publications including Thomson Reuters Foundation, Inter Press Service, The New Humanitarian, China Daily, FDi Magazine of the Financial Times of London, South China Morning Post, and Foreign Policy, among others.
Madalitso Wills Kateta is a freelance journalist based in Lilongwe, Malawi. Kateta specializes in gender, human rights, climate change, politics and global development reporting. He has written for Thompson Reuters Foundation, The New Humanitarian, African Arguments, Equal Times, and others.
Natasha Chassagne Ph.D., is a writer and researcher on sustainability and well-being. 
Breanna Draxler is a senior editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice, and Native rights. She has nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines including National Geographic online and Grist, among others. She collaborated on a climate action guide for Audubon Magazine that won a National Magazine Award in 2020. She recently served as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She has a master’s degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. She previously held staff positions at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine.