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Dealing with the scourge of waste

Waakhe Simon
A nonprofit organisation is burning plastic to create new building materials – and jobs. While it deals with the scourge of plastic waste, questions remain about the process and the toxic byproducts it produces.
18.02.2022  |  Juba, South Sudan
Godi Swalleh Safi, Executive Director of Help Food Security and Livelihoods Africa (HF-Africa), moulding plastic waste into interlocking bricks.  (photo: The Niles / Waakhe Simon Wudu)
Godi Swalleh Safi, Executive Director of Help Food Security and Livelihoods Africa (HF-Africa), moulding plastic waste into interlocking bricks. (photo: The Niles / Waakhe Simon Wudu)

In South Sudan’s capital Juba, a local organisation tries to address the city’s widespread pollution problem.  

Help Food Security and Livelihoods Africa (HF-Africa), a local nonprofit organisation in South Sudan converts biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste into building materials and fertilisers, a move that could save the environment from the negative impacts of plastics.

The organisation started its work in 2019 to address environmental issues. “We are targeting climatic change and global warming. Suppose we don’t care about rubbish, especially plastic, and make use of it. In that case, our life will be in danger,” says Godi Swalleh Safi, Executive Director of Help Food Security and Livelihoods Africa.


The process

At one of its sites, Kor Wolliang, a suburb south of the capital Juba, the organisation gathers enormous quantities of garbage, mostly plastic bottles. The plastic waste is collected from many other dumping sites in Juba, then burnt in a metallic container. The waste is then decomposed into a liquid substance.

We use old chairs and anything that can melt we burn.”

The substance is scooped into a moulder of 20 by 15 centimetres using a spade. Some dried sand soil is added into the substance in the moulder and then mixed up using a trowel. The mixed-up substance is then moulded to various building materials such as interlocking bricks, tiles and pavers.

The process of turning the plastics into a liquid substance “takes much waste,” Godi Swalleh Safi, the Executive Director of HF-Africa, says. “For one interlock brick, you need one full tipper lorry. We don’t only use plastic bottles. We use old chairs and anything that can melt we burn,” Safi says.

HF-Africa uses firewood, paraffin and diesel to create recycled building materials. He says the biodegradable waste materials such as food – one of the most prominent types of garbage littered across the capital – is converted into fertilisers for kitchen gardens. 


The opportunities

Safi says measures such as plastic recycling could create employment opportunities for youth by encouraging locals to collect the plastic waste that HF-Africa buys from them.

So far, HF-Africa has recruited seven volunteers engaged in various activities such as weighing the plastic rubbish, taking records, and monitoring the whole process, Safi says.

Amna Hafis, 26 years old, was redundant since finishing secondary school a few years ago. She is a volunteer with HF-Africa, where she has worked as a secretary for the last two years.  “Being a volunteer is better than when one is staying at home doing nothing. Now I’m gaining experience and learning,” she says.  


The challenge

One big challenge is the smoke emitted from the burning of plastics, which is another form of dangerous pollution.

“When we are burning the plastics, we act in an organised way. We burn the plastics and all other materials in one metallic container, and we cover it. A pipe of three meters long is connected to the metallic container and takes smoke from the metallic container into a drum of water. While the burning takes place, the smoke is absorbed into the water. You would see the water boiling, but there is nothing like smoke coming out,” Safi explains, adding, “if there is smoke coming out, it’s in small quantity at a time when we are scooping out the melted plastic from the metallic container into the moulder”. 

Innovation is a continuous process.”

The water is then used to clean the streets, says Safi.

Environmental policy analyst Gizam Moses, a Project Officer of Civil Society Coalition on Natural Resources in South Sudan, describes the HF-Africa undertaking as a “good initiative”. He says the initiative deserves both private and public partnership to widen its operations and help address key environmental issues and societal issues like unemployment.

He says despite the challenge of managing the final bi-product – toxic water from the process, “innovation is a continuous process”, and HF-Africa would need to devise other best ways of managing the toxic water.  “Even when you dispose it on the ground or you dig another well for disposing it, it could penetrate the underground water that we drink,” Moses warns.


The waste problem

Plastic waste, especially bottles and bags, constitute most of Juba’s litter. In the absence of organised waste disposal, trash is dumped across roads, markets, residential areas and many undesignated dumping sites.

While Juba’s authorities make an effort to collect some of the garbage daily, it is then dumped along some major roads just a few miles away from the capital. Many poor and vulnerable people – children and women mostly – are often seen at the dumping sites to collect items, including plastic bottles. Besides polluting the environment, the waste is causing health problems to residents.

“This waste is a problem to us, for example, causing diseases. When it is burnt, it makes a bad smell, and when it is not burnt, it attracts a lot of flies,” 56-year-old Hafis Lazim Sadig, a resident of Kor Wolliang. He says waste has been dumped in his area since 2006, adding, “when it rains, or there is wind, the smell is awful”.

Attempts by Juba City Council to collect the rubbish are not helping to address the problem, Sadig said.

“Our area is a bit far away, it is near a river, and the official vehicles cannot reach us, and our rubbish is not being collected,” he says.

According to policy analysts like Moses, the improper management of plastic waste afflicts the entire Nile Basin region. For example, the River Nile, which nearly 600 million people use, is one of the most plastic-polluted resources. This reality threatens aquatic life and tourism, both essential to local livelihoods along the Nile.

“Toxic chemicals in the plastic materials in the water are harmful. Among humans, there is a high probability of heart diseases. Children can be born with deformities as a result of mothers drinking contaminated water,” Moses says.  

Moses says many countries in the Nile Basin, including South Sudan, have not invested in protecting the Nile from being polluted with plastic. There are no statistics in South Sudan on how many plastic bottles are manufactured and thrown away every day.

Elsewhere, according to Gopure, a US-based distribution and marketing company, humans globally purchase one million plastic water bottles per minute, 91 percent of which are not recycled. This means that plastic water bottle consumption currently stands at nearly 1.5 billion per day.


Health hazards of plastics 

Plastic water bottles contain a sizeable amount of Bisphenol A (BPA), a high production volume chemical with adverse endocrine and reproductive health effects. Plastic water bottles also contain plastic softeners known as phthalates. Phthalates are everywhere, and a tidal wave of research has documented their wide-ranging negative health impacts.

Plastic water bottles are made from petroleum products such as polyethylene terephthalate, which require a substantial amount of fossil fuels to create and transport. This means that recycling plastic bottles is complex, meaning that plastic bottles often end up discarded in landfills, where they ultimately make their way to parks, rivers and oceans.

There is no initiative collecting these plastic bags.”

In South Sudan, little is being done to combat this environmental pollutant. Recent attempts to address the issue of plastic waste centred on banning the use of plastic bags.

The Mayor of the capital Juba, banned plastic bags and directed the public and companies to use carton paper bags for packaging goods and services. While it was a good step towards addressing the issue of polluting the environment with plastic wastes, Moses says “that initiative disappeared”, adding that “there is no initiative collecting these plastic bags back from us for recycling or reuse”.

There is no law currently addressing environmental pollution in general across the country. The South Sudan environmental bill that should have offered a legal basis for governing the environment and penalising abuses of the environment is still a bill and yet to be enacted into law by parliament.


Dealing with the scourge of waste

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