Appropriate Technologies to Harness the Potential of Waste Resource Conversion into Useful Products in East Africa


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East Africa’s cities are plagued by waste disposal problems arising from poor utilization of fossil based resources such as plastics. There is an urgent need to provide for alternatives to such catastrophes so as to limit the impending disaster and curtail the problems arising from waste plastic. In addition, most such cities are energy deficient with requirements for energy ranging between 50-80% as the current energy deficit. In particular, the burden of poor use and disposal mechanisms of waste on East Africa’s urban systems management, health and agricultural sector is immensely high. This calls for alternative procedures for utilization and safe use of waste. Such procedures include the conversion of waste into bioplastics for disposal packaging and biodiesel for energy, and glycerin. Glycerin is an important ingredient in cosmetics industry but importantly in biodegradable material production.

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In our interventions, we have developed a biodegradable plastics technology that depends on cassava starch/flour and cellulose to produce biodegradable packaging material. The technology has already been tested for its various applications including production of high end market based plastics. This technology has high commercialization potential but needs to be scaled out industrially to support local businesses to address challenges from fossil plastics. However, it is highly challenged by high input costs for binding agents such as glycerin. Relatedly, we have also been producing biodiesel using locally adapted catalysts for energy production and use in small implements such as lawn mowers, house generators and water pumps. We still need to improve our catalyst efficiency but importantly we need to harness the by-products of the biodiesel production process to produce glycerin. This glycerin will then support the bio-plastics production process.

We therefore propose to integrate these two processes by designing process based procedures for scaling out the product production, refining and improving the qualities of glycerin for incorporation into biodegradable plastics production processes and hence utilization of both process products sustainably. We will then undertake feasibility studies on the application of bioplastics for use as packaging material and biodiesel as an urban based form of renewable energy. This will be followed by the proof of concept in various cities in east Africa by setting up partner guided cottage and medium scale processing plants by the different interested stakeholders. These plants will be guided to produce both bioplastics and biodiesel for local utilization. In doing these, we hope to increase the safety of fast food restaurant workers, increase consumer safety, reduce on the incidence of lifestyle based diseases, sustainably use vegetable oils; sustainably use energy based crops like cassava and provides market for surplus material.

The rising trend in the urban poor population is at the moment a major problem for most city authorities’ especially in developing countries and is highly linked to urban food insecurity. It is as a result of unregulated and uncoordinated rural urban migration coupled to inefficient utilization of available resources. In fact, most urban cities consider such resources as a nuisance and a waste; yet even handling procedures for such waste are limited creating social and health based cataclysms.

This is happening in the background of an opportune urban agricultural and industrial sector with very high potential to address urban food insecurity and unemployment problems. Most city authorities have already started promoting urban based manufacturing and agriculture projects because of their contribution to job creation and food security and poverty alleviation. Several studies have already shown that such systems have high potential in low income countries for urban food security and basic employment. In such systems, cottage based manufacturing is practiced to serve for the immediate needs of the community. This includes the need for packaging materials and appropriate waste disposal measures. In addition and highly linked to this, is the growing of area specific staple crops and intensive livestock systems that are practiced for consumption and sometimes for sale. The systems are also important in addressing social and gender gaps especially where women are involved.

However, the sectors and their systems are limited by enormous energy and other input related challenges. The increasing trend in per capita consumption, urbanization, and population growth combined with a lack of sufficient infrastructure to manage the increased waste generation is a big concern. Particularly, plastic waste presents not only an environmental issue for East African countries but also a major socio-economic development challenge which impacts biodiversity, infrastructure, tourism and fisheries livelihoods. The lack of clean drinking water only exacerbates the problem, as in many city centers, even drinking water is packaged in single use sachets and plastic bags which are later disposed.

Such challenges can be offset by the utilization of urban based waste for production of packaging material, energy and fertilizer based inputs. These resources can be obtained from waste oil resources and agricultural waste common in most cities in Uganda. In addition, the sectors can be promoted by offsetting sector limitations in the environment such as plastic pollution. Combination of these waste based resources presents a rare opportunity, which if harnessed, will result into sustainable urban agriculture for cities and livelihoods.

One of the main and faster developing complications in cities in developing countries is the increase in production of fat, oil and grease. In particular, East Africa’s cities are growing at a faster rate, with a rising middle class and a change in the eating patterns where fast foods are taking over traditional foods. This has resulted in an oil based diet, predominant in fast foods cafes and restaurants where re-use of cooking and frying oil results into reduction of the vegetable oil quality. The primary effects are felt by the restaurant employees in a polluted environment while food produced is risky for consumption given the contamination with oxidative radicals leading to lifestyle diseases. In addition, there are no proper disposal mechanisms for used oil in such cities.

Related to this, is the problem of fossil based plastics which are an integral part of society in East Africa and have varied application. Due to fabrication of desired shape color and specification convenient to customers there is increasing application these plastics in packaging, agriculture, automobiles and biomedical uses. They are indispensable due to development in information technology, intelligent and smart packaging system and are thus applicable in a range of sectors making them an ever existing product within our environment. However, the plastics are an ever increasing concern due to non-degradability and generation of toxic gases on combustion during incineration. This comes off from over 300 million metric tons of plastics produced in the world annually. Most of these (about 50%) are meant for disposal applications, where the products are discarded within months of their purchase. The disposed plastic is a waste and its resultant pollution clogs up rivers, oceans, lands and adversely affects the biodiversity.

Globally steps are being taken for development of environmentally friendly, innovative plastic items using the concept of green chemistry and other safe disposal methods. Such plastics can easily and sustainably replace the current disposable plastic volumes being used by different economy sectors. The biodegradable plastics have the potential to increase the sustainability criteria of the different interventions. Importantly also the adoption of locally adapted process to produce marketable and consumer demanded products ensures success in production and use of biodegradable plastics and can induce local ownership.

Of specific importance is the integration of plastic production processes to other forms of waste utilization. This will take the form of integrated waste management practices that should be encouraged, strengthened and supported with state of art scientific applications (Singh and Sharma, 2016). Such scientific applications are critical researchable options some of which have already been developed by local scientists and are applicable as home grown solutions. One of them is the ability to develop scalable processes at laboratory level that can easily be adopted at industrial level. The processes include biologically and biochemically relevant options with potential to deliver industrial products with entrepreneurial potential. It is anticipated that this will henceforth reduce the disposable plastic burden and encourage the utilization of cellulose and starch based hybrid materials for production of safer plastics. The venture will also encourage other lucrative employment sectors including sustainable urban agriculture which at the moment is critical in addressing urban food insecurity. With developed full process integration models, sustainable use of the available resources will be promoted.

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