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Charcoal made from discarded cardboard.

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A bag woven from unheated, untreated plastic bags.

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A plate injection molded from plastic scraps.

From the outside, you can barely tell that these things are, in fact, garbage.

Welcome to Plastic Recyclers SACCO, a cooperative of community-based waste recycling organizations created in 2006 by Practical Action’s Nairobi office. Their mission is to clean up their environment by creating marketable goods out of garbage.

Indiscriminate dumping of waste is a massive problem in many developing countries. In Nairobi, less than 1% of the garbage produced is collected. The rest ends up in fields, covering vegetation, or in drains, causing flooding and other serious health concerns. It is hazardous to animals, and water-filled plastic bags can become a breeding ground for malaria. The litter also takes away from the aesthetic appeal of the environment, affecting the tourism industry.

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The majority of this garbage is either plastic or organic waste. Little is done to recycle either.

In 2006, Practical Action united several of Nairobi’s community-based organizations (CBOs) that are dedicated to waste recycling. Each organization has its own focus and specific projects, but they share a common goal. They formed a committee and chose to focus on plastics recycling. They obtained some fancy equipment from an outside donor. They started collecting materials and taking orders for various recycled-plastic products.

But no pilot organization is without its obstacles. The machines broke several months ago and are just being fixed. Funding from Practical Action stopped and the Cooperative is struggling to find ways to become self-sustainable. The leaders, while invested and innovative, all have slightly different ideas about what they want to accomplish.

I came to Nairobi to work with the Cooperative on their plastics recycling technologies, a field in which I have some past experience. But plans always change. I still plan on working with on technologies, specifically on low-tech plastic recycling methods so the Cooperative can reach more rural areas (much time and money is wasted on transport in their current centralized model). But, more than anything, I am hoping to help them with business strategy and networking. I have access to many resources that they have yet to reach. I have contacts and technological documents that could help them grow. The leaders of each CBO are innovative, creative, and willing to put themselves out there. They just need a plan and network that allows them to extend their reach and make their Cooperative known.

So wish me luck in doing something with which I have no prior experience.

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