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From litter to resource: Supporting Southern Africa

Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe have expressed the ambition to tackle the waste issues in their countries from the perspective of the circular economy, thus focusing on the & R’s of rethink, reduce, re-use, repair, refurbish, recycle and recover. TNO, SIB and two local consultants support them with this quest. Now that Malawi and Zambia have chosen plastics and Zimbabwe has chosen organic waste, the time has come to move from assessment to designing actions.

Improving waste management in Southern Africa

Legal open dumpsite in Livingstone, Zambia. Source: picture by Milou Derks (TNO)

Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe all experience severe challenges with waste management, leading to overflowing dumpsites, huge amounts of illegal dumping and low recycling percentages. To make steps to improve this situation, all three countries have applied for a CTCN Technical Assistance study on the circular economy potential for the household waste management system.

Three activities of the CTCN study

This study, performed by TNO, SIB Kenya, and two Zimbabwean consultants is split up into three different activities:

  1. Conducting a baseline study on the current waste situation:
    The first entailed a baseline assessment of the household waste management system, looking at six waste streams, being plastics, glass, metal, paper, urban organic solid waste and organic agricultural waste.

  2. Determining which waste stream has the highest potential:
    The circularity potential of each of the waste streams was analyzed and together with local stakeholders it was decided which waste stream to focus on. In Malawi and Zambia the focus is on plastics, in Zimbabwe on urban organic solid waste.

  3. Define an actionable roadmap and pilot project:
    The next part, which is still under development, is a deep dive into these specific waste systems, assessing the current status of technologies applied, the institutional landscape as well as how the market and value chains are developed.

Based on these insights, a national roadmap will be designed, incorporating recommendations for the short, medium and long term to improve the waste management system towards circularity. To create momentum for concrete short term action, the project will end with the conceptualization of a concrete pilot project that could be implemented in the near future.

First insights on main barriers

The preliminary analysis shows that for all three countries plastic and organic waste valorization seems stuck due to three root causes:

  1. Policy focuses on regulation: “Sticks” such as prohibitions and limitations, limiting options for plastic remanufacturers and recyclers to develop a profitable business case, instead of providing “carrots”, positive incentives throughout the value chain to stimulate plastic and organics reduction, separation, collection and valorization.

  2. Insufficient volume to make recycling profitable: It is challenging to secure sufficient volumes needed for profitability in remanufacturing or recycling.

    In all countries, hardly any waste is separated as there are no incentives for households to separate and generally insufficient resources for collection. Let alone separate collection and most waste is dumped in open or illegal landfills. In Malawi, 20% of waste is collected in urban areas, in Zambia and Zimbabwe 45%, while in all countries hardly any waste is collected in rural areas.

    Plastics (and other types of waste) are contaminated by decaying organic matter in households during transportation or at landfills, reducing their value, and plastics that still have value are quickly buried by new waste.

    Thus, at this moment, the only way that household plastic waste can still be valorized is through collection by informal waste pickers at dumpsites, who account for 97% of all collected plastics. However, these only choose high-value easy-to-collect products and there is only a small collection window until the waste gets buried or contaminated beyond valorization. For organics there is hardly any option for valorization after collection, since waste pickers do not collect organics due to the low value and smelliness.

  3. Margins on recycled plastic products are low: This is due to high electricity prices, the lack of available technology in the country and the high cost of securing sufficient plastic waste. The margins on organic products are also low due to high startup costs (in case of biogas) and quality uncertainty (in case of organic fertilizer).

Expected impact

The assessment outcomes will provide the basis for a national roadmap as well as a pilot concept. By developing these outputs, this project will:

  1. Create momentum for and accelerate the transition to more sustainable and circular waste management systems for plastics (Malawi & Zambia) and organics (Zimbabwe);
  2. To contribute to the development of jobs in waste management, increasing employment in sustainable sectors;
  3. Increase the amount of economic activity (value adding activities) within the countries (instead of exportation).

Partners in the project

The project, which was assigned to TNO, will be executed by an international team led by TNO, complemented with two local consultants from Zimbabwe and the Kenyan consultancy Sustainable Inclusive Business Kenya (SIB), who will jointly take a leading role in local data gathering and strategy development.

The project is granted by CTCN (Climate and Technology Center & Network) and funded by the European Commission.

In each country the team will work in close contact with the National Designated Entity, the designated lead scientist responsible for the project on a national level.

Would you like to collaborate or learn more about this project?'

Get in touch with our consultant Naomi Montenegro Navarro

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Naomi Montenegro Navarro MSc

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