Purging plastic from Juba

In a city without running water, plastic bottles are not a luxury, but a necessity. In Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, they are quickly becoming an emergency. An estimated 750,000 plastic bottles are consumed every day, and there is nowhere to throw them away.

“In 2012, when I first arrived in Juba, I immediately noticed all these plastic bottles. They were everywhere,” said Olivier Laboulle, a French environmentalist who, together with some South Sudanese activists, created a “green” NGO called Environmental Rehabilitation Program, and the first recycling project in the world’s youngest nation.

One of the NGO’s programs, Juba Recycles involves four women cooperatives (“returnees” from Khartoum, or civilians displaced by the conflict which is devastating Jonglei State) and 26 schools, alongside some collecting points in the main compound of the United Nations Mission In South Sudan and other private residences.

A woman removes labels from plastic bottles at a Juba Recycles cooperative. Gabriela Jacomella.

Women collect discarded bottles on the roads, in the fields, in front of small local shops. Students busy themselves with cleaning up classrooms and courtyards at least two hours per week. Juba Recycles’ truck periodically collects the full sacks and drops them at another cooperative, where women carefully remove the labels and discard material that is not PET — the plastic commonly found in soft drink and water bottles. The cleaned-up bottles are then mechanically cut into tiny “plastic flakes,” to be sold in Kenya and Uganda. Their final destination is Chinese textile factories, where the “flakes” are turned into synthetic fibres.

Recycling machines convert plastic bottles to ‘flakes,’ which are sent to China and turned into synthetic fibres. Gabriela Jacomella.

Supporting local communities

By November this year, Juba Recycles wants to be recycling a ton of plastic per day, explains Laboulle. “In the future, we might even double it. Twenty tons of plastic bottles are thrown away daily in Juba.”

The program aims to raise a profit of $35,000 per year, all of it going to support local communities.

“A ton of recycled plastic equals 33,000 bottles, and is worth $400. Women in our cooperatives earn between $7 and $14 per week, with a 3-hour working day,” says Laboulle.

Students, on the other hand, can “invest” the revenue in buying equipment for their institution. In less than three months, for instance, Rainbow School, a primary school in Jebel, a suburb on the outskirts of Juba, almost reached the sum needed to buy a water tank.

The project is funded by the French Embassy in South Sudan, and supported by SSBL (Southern Sudan Beverages Limited), which provides a plot for the recycling plant for free, inclusive of electric power and water. SSBL is a South African company; its Juba factory produces beer, soft drinks and mineral water.

“Our goal is to become economically self-sustainable in 2014,” says Laboulle.

Rainbow School, a primary school in Jebel, a suburb on the outskirts of Juba, takes part in the Juba Recycles program. Gabriela Jacomella.

A plastic emergency

Unfortunately, a single recycling project isn’t enough to trigger a major change in a city more and more suffocated by its own garbage.

Despite being recently upgraded, Juba’s only dumping site struggles with the almost 150 tons of waste collected every day in the city: lack of power hinders the construction of an incinerator. Clouds of women and children swarm upon refuse bags, scavenging among hospital needles and rotting market refusal. Nobody wears rubber gloves.

Juba produces 129,210 tons of garbage per year. More than half of it remains exactly where it is: on the roadside, along the river, in the fields. In the midday heat, the stench is overwhelming.

“The common practice here is ‘let’s litter, the government will clean up for us,’” said Gömbu Wani Latio, Minister for Environment in Central Equatoria State. “We must fight against this approach. And we can only do it by educating people: in schools, radios, local communities.”

Recycling is the minister’s main obsession: “True, the dumping site can be improved. But without incinerators, we’ll go on burying plastic under tons of soil. And plastic is not biodegradable.”

Juba Recycling is a first attempt to look forward. “We want to help them in enlarging the project,” said Latio. “It’s time to stop focusing on today’s emergencies, and to plan for our future.”

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

Header image: Garbage in Juba. Gabriela Jacomella.

Gabriela Jacomella is an Italian journalist and documentary maker. She is currently based in South Sudan and working on the webdocumentary ‘Juba In The Making.’ She blogs on someworlds.wordpress.com and tweets at @gab_jacomella.


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3 Responses to “Purging plastic from Juba”

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