Reshaping Kenya’s plastic pollution problem into positive impact

I joined Dow, the materials science company, in Nairobi, Kenya to learn how they are advancing a circular economy for plastics in Africa, by reducing plastic waste in the country and creating jobs through its social enterprise initiative called Project Butterfly.

Tonnes of plastic that will be recycled as part of Project Butterfly where products and materials are recovered, recycled and reused.

Why Project Butterfly?

This initiative by Dow, helps to raise awareness and influence positive behaviour in waste disposal and recycling in Kenya. The project shows not only how vital it is to keep local environments litter-free but demonstrates the value of recycling – transforming ordinary waste into something new through innovation and collaboration – to the benefit of the environment, the local economy and communities who live there.

Introduced in 2017 in the township of Tembisa, Johannesburg, Project Butterfly works with non-profit organisations and local communities to tackle poor waste management through education, clean-ups and innovation-focused initiatives. Currently active in Johannesburg, Durban, Lagos and Nairobi, Project Butterfly is part of Dow’s global commitment to address plastic pollution and create a more sustainable planet.

We have to rethink plastic

Walking through Mukuru, a slum area in the east of Nairobi was eye-opening. The Ngong River runs through here. Sadly, the river and its banks are now a pale shadow of their former self. According to locals it was once known as “a place of cool waters”. This is not the case today.

Residents told me that there used to be so much plastic waste dumped into it that the river stopped flowing.

Dow’s Project Butterfly initiative has partnered with local groups to turn the situation around. One such group is ChildFund Kenya, an NGO that value, protect and advance the well-being and rights of children. The women and children of ChildFund Kenya have been working closely with households and the community to promote responsible waste disposal.

ChildFund Kenya heroes with representatives from Dow in Nairobi.

These environmental heroes start at 6am every morning, walking from house to house to educate families about disposing waste. They also collect household waste and ensure that it is correctly disposed of. In addition to working with households, they help educate matatu minibus drivers and passengers not to throw their litter out of windows.

ChildFund Kenya and Dow volunteers picking up waste during a clean-up action in Nairobi.

Dow and ChildFund Kenya work closely with health facilities and officials in the Mukuru community. Dow provides tools and equipment to encourage effective waste management, such as skips which are placed throughout the community for waste to be disposed. The main challenge for these eco champions is to find a way to plug households into the selling of recyclables as part of a source of livelihood to become part of the supply chain.

Recycling for the environment and the economy

Early one morning, I made my way on the back of a nduthi motorcycle to Kasarani where I assisted the volunteers  of Dow’s Project Butterfly initiative to pick up litter and clean the streets of this informal settlement in Nairobi. Using wheelbarrows, hand carts and bags, we deposited the gathered waste at skips or community dump grounds where waste pickers collect recyclable materials and take them to recycling facilities in Nairobi like Mr. Green Africa – the circular economy, in action!

Mr Green Africa is a human-centered recycling facility in Kenya turning waste into economic opportunities for the local community. Through Dow’s Project Butterfly, Mr. Green Africa helps over 2500 waste pickers, otherwise known as “wastepreneurs” with entrepreneurial support. Plastics are hand sorted and turned into reusable materials onsite, so plastic waste does not enter our environment.

Mr Green Africa processes the recyclable material into raw material and feeds it back into plastic manufacturers’ supply chain.

Chart of Mr. Green’s Africa social and environmental impact.

Committing to positive impact

Dow is taking action at every part of the circular economy to accelerate a move to a circular economy in Kenya. This circular economy is one that redesigns, recycles, reuses and remanufactures, to keep materials at their highest value use for as long as possible.

Together with community partners, the Project Butterfly initiative aims to preserve the environment for future generations by reshaping how communities perceive and engage with plastic waste.

I believe that if we make small changes together in the way we approach plastic waste, we can make a big, positive impact. For those hardest hit by plastic pollution such as the communities I met in Nairobi’s Mukuru and Kasarani, plastic waste can become socio-economic lifelines for families. Waste pickers can become “wastepreneurs” lifted out of the informal market and be recognised as a profession. Plastic choking rivers, lining streets and overflowing informal community dump sites could ultimately be things of the past.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *