Waste to Wealth: The women at the heart of bottle recycling in FCT

By Emiene Erameh

A typical day for Esther John, a street cleaner begins around 4 am.

“I have to wake up early every day in order to get to the bus stop on time,” she said.

Waking up early is a must for Esther who said she does this to meet up with the bus which takes her to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) city centre where she works. This helps her reduce the cost of transportation because if she misses the bus, she will pay more.

Esther is one among many women who clean the streets of the FCT. She is employed by an independent contractor through the Abuja Environmental Protection Agency and she says her salary of N20, 000 per month is hardly enough which is why she started the business of sourcing for and selling single-use plastic water bottles.

The consumption of water in single-use plastics is high in the FCT especially when the weather is hot. They are usually consumed and disposed of indiscriminately owing partly to a poor waste disposal culture. This is not peculiar to the FCT alone.

A survey by Statista shows that 59.3% of waste disposal in Nigeria is done informally.

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It is this informal sector that Esther belongs to and in her case, she specifically targets plastic waste.

Nigeria, according to a United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) report, generates some 32 million tonnes of waste per year, 2.5 million tonnes of this is plastic waste.

The country according to the report is estimated to have discharged around 200, 000 tonnes of plastic waste into the ocean per year, while its annual plastic production is projected to grow to 523, 000 tonnes by the end of this year.

Esther is not alone in the trade of plastic bottles; many of her colleagues who clean the streets of Abuja are also involved in this line of work and collectively, while they work to augment their income, they unwittingly also ensure that the streets are free of plastic bottles and the bottles are recycled even if it is done informally.

PHOTO Credit: Emiene Erameh.

Mama Emmanuel is another cleaner who also engages in the business.

“The economy is not doing well at all, and so our salary does not go far at all, we have to find other ways of survival,” Mama Emmanuel explains what led her to start the business.

Mama Emmanuel a mother of four said even though the money realized from the sale of the plastic bottles is meagre, it still helps in solving some problems.

As a result of their activities, plastic bottles are hardly part of the refuse any longer.

How they carry out their activities

“When I resume at work, the first thing I do is to clean the street which is my primary assignment,” Esther says.

While cleaning she says she keeps an eye on the refuse collected in order to separate any plastic bottle which is part of the dirt she has collected.

Picking bottles is not Esther’s only source of getting the bottles. After she is done cleaning the streets, a task which has to be finished quickly before the city wakes up fully, she then proceeds to check on her other sources of accessing the bottles.

Her next stop is hotels and shops within the area she cleans. However, she does not get those bottles for free.

“The hotel people were giving to us for free before, but when they realized there was money involved, they started selling to us.” The cleaner explains how she gets bottles from the hotels.

The hotels are however the biggest sources of the bottles and their bottles are usually cleaner.

Josephine Markus is another cleaner who is involved in sourcing and recycling plastics. Josephine however said she travels long distances to get substantial quantities because the hotels and offices around the area where she works are fully booked.

“I cannot complain about the distance, I am a widow with three children, every naira counts,” Josephine said while noting that the distance she commutes to get the bottles she recycles cannot serve as a barrier.

This line of work is not restricted to cleaners alone as some office assistants in different organizations and firms around the FCT also engage in it.

Bisola Rahman is a cleaner at Veritas University and she said she also picks and sells plastic bottles as a way of augmenting her meagre income.

“When I started this work, I saw my colleagues picking the bottles and when I asked, they said they sell it so I joined them”.

Bisola sources her bottles from the canteen where the students eat and from offices that she is assigned to clean.

How the cleaners process the street bottles

When the women get the bottles, it goes through a process. They put all the bottles together and sort them out.

The neat ones that can be recycled are washed and dried and kept in sacks and ready to be sent out. The dirty ones which did not make the cut are left for itinerant waste disposal men popularly called “baban bolla” who move around all around the city collecting wastes for a fee.

PHOTO Credit: Emiene Erameh.

When the bottles are cleaned and properly dried, they are then supplied to their end users.

These include traders in the market who measure and sell cooking oil such as palm oil and vegetable oil and kerosene. The bottles sell at the rate of 50 naira for a dozen.

“The ones that sell quickly are the bigger bottles,” Esther said. By this, she is referring to the 75cl bottles.

She explained that they move faster because they are used as a unit of measurement for the cooking oil that the traders retail.

The smaller bottles are then sold to those who sell ‘Kunu’, which is a local drink made of different ingredients such as tiger nuts, millet and Hibiscus tea also known locally as Zobo.

Final consumer

The ones used to sell Kunu may still be up for recycling especially the ones that still appear clean.

Josephine mentioned earlier said Kunu bottles can still be recycled depending on who drank from them.

“Some people will just drink and squeeze and destroy the bottle and you cannot use it again,” she clarified.

The bottles used to sell cooking oil especially the ones for palm oil are usually trashed.

“I have no use for them again once the oil finishes, palm oil is difficult to wash,” this was the response of Mrs Belinda Ogbona who regularly buys cooking oil in plastic bottles.

Esther said the bottles used for the sale of kerosene can hardly be recycled.

These then are the ones that will ultimately make the cut as part of the haul “baban bollas” get as the final consumers because they account for a lot of plastic waste.

PHOTO Credit: Emiene Erameh.

On their part, when they get to their designated waste areas, they sort out the waste and keep plastic waste to one side. The plastic waste is then sent for recycling.

Juliet Odhikri is the Programs Manager for the Advancement of Waste Management in Africa (Waste Africa) and she manages a recycling hub at one of the refuse dumps in Kubwa, a suburb of the FCT and her organization buys the plastics that the baban bolla gathers.

Miss Odhikori said the plastic waste her organization gets from the dumps is processed into secondary raw materials such as buckets, bowls and other household items.

The Waste Africa Program Manager said recycling plastics is quite useful in alleviating the harmful effects of plastics on the environment.

“Usually when these things are not recycled, we see people in the community burning them because plastics do not decompose and that process releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which in turn compounds the climate change problems the world is currently experiencing,” she said.

‘I do not think they are healthy’

While residents have applauded the women for the work they are doing in ridding the streets of plastic waste, others have raised concerns that bottles which are recycled and used for the sale of Kunu may not be safe for consumption.

“Of course, I purchase Kunu from vendors, but I always have to ascertain the neatness of the vendor, but if she is selling in a recycled bottle then I will not buy because I do not think they are healthy and I feel it is unsafe,” Mrs Ogbona said.

“I recycle the ones I use at home and that is fine but to drink from a bottle that a random individual that I do not know drank from when I am not sure if it was properly cleaned, no, I will not do that,” she added.

“I can and I do buy palm oil in recycled bottles because I usually cook the oil and that will make it safe for consumption, so there is no problem there,” Mrs Ogbona explains why she has no problem with buying cooking oil in recycled bottles.

Esther says in spite of the labour that goes into sourcing the plastics the income generated from the enterprise is still meagre.

Dr. Laz Eze, a public health expert and sustainable development consultant and CEO, TalkHealth9ja said the random picking of used plastic bottles and reuse for selling drinks can pose a serious health risk if the bottles are not properly cleaned.

“Bottles serve as a habitat for the growth of micro-organisms like bacteria, fungi, etc. Even after warm washing, not all the organisms get killed or dislodged. They can still cause infections including gastroenteritis,” Dr Eze stressed noting that ensuring that the bottles are properly washed should be a key factor in the recycling process.

This story has been made possible by Nigeria Health Watch with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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