Travelling with trash

A pile of various coloured trash is laid out almost every day outside the gates of estates in major cities, waiting for what would be their final destination.

Almost always, the rumble of dirt trucks is preceded by the foul smell, and often more than two young men hang dangerously on the sides before they hop out, pick trash up, and methodically swing it up in the air and into the trucks where they land.

Trash bags bursting at the seams with the most basic home essentials such as milk cartons, leftover food, bottles, torn clothes or old electronics are sent off to their trash journey.

This daily activity is carried out at a fee where every household pays a certain monthly fee to have their garbage collected. What most know is that the fully loaded garbage trucks soon leave their home area and the place is clean.

The fee paid for collection is worth it after all, and the less the residents know about where this mundane process goes on the better. What most people, however, fail to realize is that a lot of money is about to be made from this.

All this trash has to go somewhere, and in various parts of the country, there are individuals, who will dispose of these very items in exchange for money.

A second life for trash

When clothing, furniture, batteries, and appliances (known as solid waste) are disposed of, it can take one of three paths: sorted and recycled, diverted to a waste-to-energy facility such as incinerators, or tossed in a landfill.

Quite often, the dumping can be pretty careless. In Kibera’s Sarangombe Ward, the garbage collected from Woodely and Jamuhuri estates for example ends up at the periphery of the railway line. Here, the self-employed collectors sort the items, determine how much they could be worth, and then proceed to various points of where they could make money.

Clothes and some electronic appliances are sold right next to the railway line for as little as Kes10 depending on how worn out they are. For metal parts, they are often carried to Ngong Road where they are put on a scale and sold per kilogram to dealers.

Wairimu buys scrap metal along Ngong Road and depending on the weight and value, often determined visually, money changes hands.

While recycling rates show promising trends, Kenya has near negligible recycling rates since the majority of the waste, with 259 tonnes out of 407,000 tonnes is plastic waste, going to the ocean and other water sources.

PETCO, Kenya PET Recycling Company, which is an industry body mandated with the responsibility of regulating the management of post-consumer PET packaging in the country often recruits members for the purpose of collecting plastics that are harmful to the environment.

Single-serve food formats, such as takeaway plastic bottles, and household chemicals housed in plastics and electronics are on the rise in the country. Many collectors agree that there is little profit to it since most people recycle for free which is why most plastics that end up in landfills stay there.

Read Also: Climate Summit seeks Nairobi Declaration for green growth

Uncontrolled Landfills

Recycled items such as these are sold in various parts of Kenya in this form before they are taken to various primary landfills in the country such as Dandora in Nairobi and Kibarani in Mombasa, which contribute to 19 of Africa’s 50 biggest landfills in the world.

These landfills are uncontrolled and by composition, an average of approximately 13 percent of municipal solid waste generated in Africa is plastic with 57 percent constituting organic waste which are often followed by open burning.

The African Union Development Agency (AUDA) estimates that the bulk of organic waste is currently being dumped in landfills. This, they say, is despite the fact that organic waste could provide significant socio-economic opportunities for African countries.

Waste that lands in landfills unfortunately makes its way to water sources such as the Nairobi River, which is already contaminated with antibiotics that exceed levels considered to be safe in health terms.

According to a global study by York University, concentrations of antibiotics found in some of the world’s rivers exceed “safe” levels by up to 300 times.

Prof Alistair Boxall, theme leader of the York Environmental Sustainability Institute, said that samples collected from the Nairobi River revealed that the most prevalent antibiotic was sulfamethoxazole.


Of the total amount of waste generated by healthcare activities, about 85 percent is considered non-hazardous waste comparable to domestic waste. The remaining 15 percent is considered hazardous material that may be infectious, chemical or radioactive.

Kenya, like most of all low income countries, generates on average up to 0.2 kg and when hazardous or non-hazardous wastes are not separated, the real quantity of hazardous waste gets much higher.

The disposal of untreated healthcare wastes in landfills leads to the contamination of drinking, surface, and ground waters if those landfills are not properly constructed, says the WHO.

There is a unique challenge for developing waste management practices, including disposal availability and environmental safety and of all the waste streams, waste from electrical and electronic equipment containing new and complex hazardous substances presents the fastest-growing challenge in both developed and developing countries.

Recycling is, however, not limited to just plastics. Many clothing items sold as second-hand items are often donated items from high-income countries. Kenya is one of the largest used clothing markets in the world.

According to a research by Anuja Prashar, lecturer of International Business at KCA University (KCAU) in Nairobi, it is believed that four-fifths of Africans put on second-hand clothes, mainly imported from the US, Europe, India and Pakistan.

This is taking place while the Rockefeller Institute of Government notes that Asian countries are changing their importing requirements. Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, for example, have ordered for the shipment of thousands of tonnes of recyclables back to their sources, primarily the US and Canada.

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