Thematic Green Messages

Author: Dr. Isaac Kalua

10th Apr 2021 at 07:17 am





In the early months of Covid-19 in 2020, Kitui County Textile Centre (KICOTEC) shot to global fame when it transformed overnight from a garment production factory into a mask production center. By doing so KICOTEC entrenched itself into the international face masks value chain and made a fortune. However, these life-saving masks are now posing an environmental problem. They are a potential source of micro-plastic fibers that are harmful to the environment in vast ways.

Every single day, 6.8 billion disposable face masks are used across the globe. A percentage of those face masks are used right here in Kenya. This means that every week, millions of disposable face masks find their way to landfills all across Kenya. Instead of wasting away in these landfills and clogging our waterways as they harm the environment, these millions of facemasks can be translated into millions of shillings.

Researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia have discovered a novel way of turning waste masks into a goldmine.

These masks are shredded and mixed with processed building rubble to produce material that adds a critical stiffness and strength to the base layers of roads and pavements. Approximately 3 million masks can be used to make a one kilometer long, two-lane road. Apart from saving funds, this utilization of used face masks diverts 93 tonnes of masks from landing in landfills. Based on the success of this research, the same researchers are now exploring how disposable face masks can also be used as an aggregate material for making concrete. Kenya can look deeper into such research and begin to use used face masks in making the many roads that we still need in this country.

We can also borrow a leaf from companies like Wilko, a retail chain in England. It has set up special collection bins in 150 of its stores across the country. The public can drop off their used masks in these special bins. Wilko is partnering with two recycling experts who process the used face masks into valuable material. Such are the complementary partnerships that we must embrace in Kenya if we are to succeed in collecting our used face masks, used gloves plus plastic bottles and monetizing them.

In this England partnership, the collected masks are quarantined for a 72-hour period, then shredded alongside other plastic waste. Thereafter, the resultant shreds are melted down and pressed into durable boards that can be utilized in making furniture and building materials.

Based on this evidence, it is clear that used face masks together with used gloves don't have to infiltrate our landfills and degrade our landscapes. They can both be turned into valuable road building, construction material and furniture. However, processing of these used Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) should be done professionally and with extreme care since some of them may be contaminated.

It is time for Kenya to seize the unlikely businesses opportunities presented by millions of used PPEs that are thrown away every week.

Since any business must always have proof of concept, it would be critical to pilot this particular business through three counties with different capabilities and diverse market dynamics. Nairobi, which is the most populous County would need to part of this trio of pilot counties. Kisumu, due to its central role in the western part of the country, can be the second county while Kitui, which has been a market leader in production of masks can be the third County.

In order for these three Counties and subsequent ones to have steady supply of used masks for processing, I suggest that we reengineer our domestic waste collection. We need to popularize and facilitate waste separation in households as we create jobs. That way, it will be possible to dump all waste masks together in secure separate bags, then create collection centers where they can be dumped, shredded and utilized accordingly. This whole exercise cannot be left to respective County governments alone. The private sector must grab a seat to join in this green table.

In this regard, I humbly suggest that a section of the billions that have been set aside to tackle the coronavirus should be used as seed funding to private sector players with proven capacity in hazardous waste management. These players should then work closely with the Ministry of Health and be compelled to create tangible sustainable jobs. This will creatively ensure that we turn the millions of waste PPEs into opportunities of creating thousands of decent jobs for our young people as we manage the environmental hazard that we find ourselves in.

~ Think Green, Act Green!

by Dr. Isaac Kalua, the founder and chairperson, Green Africa Foundation ~ 10th April, 2021.


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Dr. Isaac Kalua

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