As a Swiss citizen of Ghanaian descent I visited the country of my ancestry at a very young age and made a fast observation: the streets were gravely more littered than the streets in Switzerland, where I grew up. But why?
Years later, the search for an answer led me to the source of the problem: the country’s inability to offer adequate waste management services. The combination of a rapidly growing population and an increasing affluence led to a dramatic rise in waste volumes which, given the lack of resources, could no longer be handled. Plastic, especially plastic bottles, have therein been the biggest challenge as the absence of proper waste management policies and infrastructure (such as depot systems or collection points) prohibit its proper disposal.
Solid waste management is a tremendous challenge all over the globe but especially in the developing world. Countries have grown so quickly that they've outpaced their own development of infrastructure for trash collection. The strain will only be more pronounced, as Africa is expected to account for more than half of the world’s population growth between 2015 and 2050. By the end of the century, 83% of the world population will be concentrated in Asia and Africa alone. Finding solutions for the handling of waste therefore becomes a fast-growing and urgent matter.
That is why in recent years my urge for action became very strong: how could I help countries in need address these dire circumstances and have plastic bottles be perceived as a valuable material?
Together with my team, we wanted to create a simple yet powerful framework that can be applied in any developing country where there’s a need for proper disposal of plastic bottles. It should be set up in an inclusive manner that is economically profitable, creates employment opportunities and has a positive societal and environmental impact. In order to encourage a change of waste management habits, the resulting product should be fed into a supply chain to which it can demonstrate its true value.
The model we came up with leverages the informal sector as it recognizes the abilities of resource collectors to achieve extraordinary collection rates. The plastic bottles they collect are transported to a production facility where they are sorted by color after labels, caps and other impurities have been removed. The bottles are then crushed into flakes and packed in big bags ready for export and re-inclusion into the supply chain.
Once this model has been validated by a real life pilot we’ll start looking for local entrepreneurs who recognize the same opportunity in their respective countries. The collaboration with these educated, knowledgable and locally well-connected individuals will enable us to scale up our business and provide proper means of plastic bottle disposal throughout the developing world and generating social, environmental and financial value.
When looking for a developing country to run rePATRN’s pilot in, my team and I chose Ghana. The country’s stable democracy, high ease of doing business ranking (as compiled by the World Bank) and personal relationships offer an ideal framework for the validation of our business model.
For two years, we thoroughly researched the market of plastic bottles in Ghana. We visited the country six times and spent a total of three months on the ground. We met with local stakeholders and hired a local consultant who conducted a feasibility study to evaluate wether the parameters were given to run a successful plastic bottle recycling business. In September 2015 we took the big step to launch our pilot with the intent to establish how much plastic bottles we could source on a monthly basis.
Our first year taught us invaluable lessons and enabled us to fine-tune our business model which resulted in establishing our company as the buyer of plastic bottles in the country. While having a positive societal and environmental impact we have yet to demonstrate the sustainable value that plastic bottles can offer which we believe is necessary to fundemantally change waste management habits.