Somali refugees join the war on plastic waste

Somali refugee Abtidon Ali Mahat sorts through plastic waste at the recycling plant in Dabaab refugee camp in Garissa County, Kenya on May 30, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

The Thompson Reuters Foundation

Somali refugee Adow Sheikh Aden was mocked when he started gathering empty plastic water bottles, broken buckets and old jerry cans around one of the world’s largest refugee camps.

Somali refugee Abtidon Ali Mahat sorts through plastic waste at the recycling plant in Dabaab refugee camp in Garissa County, Kenya on May 30, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

“Everyone used to laugh and say I am mad because I am collecting rubbish. Here it is not normal to do such things,” said Aden at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya’s Garissa County, near the Somali border.

“But then I explained I am helping to keep our environment clean and our community healthy, and also I am selling the plastic to earn money so that I can manage my life and my family better,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Having fled war in Somalia, Aden is part of a small band of refugees who have taken up the fight against the plastic waste generated in Dadaab – and also earns an income from it.

Dadaab’s waste recycling project, set up by the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) just over a year ago, has only eight refugee staff. But initial results are promising, and the plan is to grow, aid workers say.

“We are collecting just a fraction of the plastic waste that is recyclable in Dadaab, and so a lot more revenue can be made from this,” she said.

The next step is to train refugees in entrepreneurship so they can take control of the project, reducing their dependence on aid, she added.

Situated 475 km (300 miles) east of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Dadaab is home to more than 200,000 refugees, largely from Somalia, who depend on aid – much of it packed in plastic.

There is no accurate data on the amount of plastic waste produced in Dadaab, but aid workers estimate hundreds of thousands of tonnes are generated annually. A 2015 Red Cross study said 270,000 jerry cans were discarded each year.

The agency is working to cut the volume of plastic, especially packaging, used in its operations and to extend the life of plastic products by improving their quality, she added.

CHANGING MINDS

Collecting waste can carry a stigma in these communities, which see it as a “low job”. And many refugees have yet to grasp the health risks of burning plastic and releasing toxic fumes.

Views are changing gradually but greater awareness is needed to tackle misconceptions and deepen understanding of the benefits of recycling, Red Cross workers said.

With his monthly wage of 8,000 shillings, worker Abtidon Ali Mahat, 45, a resident of Dadaab since 2011, has been able to get married, build his own makeshift home and buy three goats.

In the past year, he has saved 12,000 shillings.

“My wife is now pregnant and I will use this money for her and the baby, and also to buy some more goats,” he said.

Besides challenging views on waste inside Dadaab, the project could also help shatter stereotypes about refugees outside the camp, said Nelly Saiti of the KRCS.

“It shows that refugees are not a burden as some people think, but that they can be contributors in our societies – not only in terms of income-generation, but also in environmental protection,” she said.