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Examining Gambia's waste to find reprocessing solutions

It’s been a busy month with WasteAid UK’s first project out in the tiny West African state of The Gambia. The first week of May was taken up with finishing up the country’s first ever full scale waste composition analysis.

Over five days, 10 sorters, including your intrepid consultant, sorted through two-and-a-half tonnes of municipal waste in 25 samples. Just picture the scene if you will – 40 degrees Celsius, full personal protective equipment, a large amount of very smelly organic waste and some very inquisitive cows. Yes, dear reader, I now feel I have earned my waste management stripes.

So, what did we find? What was interesting was as much what wasn’t there as what was. Around a third was organic waste. While this is in line for what might be expected in the UK, it is very much at the lower end of what is generally indicated for sub-Saharan African analyses. A possible explanation is that this is seasonal – as this is at the end of the long dry season and much organic waste is relatively desiccated, reducing mass.

We found almost a fifth by weight composing of plastic – and over half of this was plastic film – a massive proportion given the low density of the material. But what was arguably most interesting was what was not there – negligible amounts of PET plastic, despite the ubiquity of plastic drinking water bottles through the country, indicating a very effective informal reuse system with used water bottles being used again and again to hold a variety of liquids. Indeed, the water bottles provided for drinking throughout the study were all spirited away at the end of each day to be refilled with a local drink, wonjo, brewed from hibiscus flowers and copious amounts of sugar.

There was also little glass, despite widespread usage for soft drinks, indicating the efficacy of the bottle deposit schemes in place, and very little metal, indicating the impact of informal metals collections.  Indeed, a number of children could be found around the site collecting and flattening ferrous metal containers.

A slightly depressing finding was that around 4% of the waste was disposable nappies, a proportion I found surprisingly high, indicating their onward global march, even throughout the developing world.

All this shows the importance of basic baseline research before considering any sort of action. Had we assumed a similar waste stream to the UK, metals, glass and paper would of course been high on the list to recycle. As it stands, we are going to leave those to local reuse and recycling systems that are already clearly working so effectively, to focus on those materials that actually need further attention, and require improved management.

One other outcome was to highlight the lack of capacity of local government to even collect the waste. The local council, Brikama, has eight tractors and trailers with a capacity of roughly five tonnes each. We calculated that the entire local government area, with a population of around 700,000 (40% of the entire country), produces around 350 tonnes per day. So, even if we add in private collectors, it suggests that collection capacity is no more than 25% of what is required. And that is on the days it is actually collecting. Where does the rest of it go? It shows that it is ultimately down to communities to manage their own waste. WasteAid UK is currently looking at extending the project to see how it can help them plan and manage this using their own resources.

So we are going to be looking at reprocessing approaches that deal with as much waste as possible and, by doing so, add as much commercial value as possible. Dealing with organic waste, specifically:

  • Adding value to woody/carbon rich organic waste by torrefaction (i.e. charcoaling), feeding into the local thriving charcoal market and reducing the deforestation this causes.
  • Investigating the potential for fish meal production from dedicated fish waste outlets in Brikama market – this is working in Senegal and we want to see how fish waste can be used as plant and animal feed.
  • Managing residual organic waste through composting, replacing expensive NPK fertilisers
  • Reprocessing plastic film into a variety of construction materials including paving slabs, gutters and local sanitary toilet holes.

It is now time to take my waste researcher hat off, and my reprocessing and product development hat on and work with the team from local partner, Women’s Initiative the Gambia, to start perfecting our recycled products. Our waste reprocessing site, just adjacent to Brikama market which will be supplying the waste, is being cleared and renovated. Our recycling kit is currently being built by the local technical college and we start testing and training next week – so full steam ahead!

All being well, we will have a fully functioning recycling centre, hosting local waste entrepreneurs, up and running by the time the project closes out in August end - creating jobs, and improving the environment.

If you want to help out, you can support us at

Mike Webster is chairman and project manager of WasteAid UK

  • Follow WasteAid UK on Twitter and Facebook: @wasteaiduk #puttingwasteright



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