Jan 2022

The momentum: Our view on the waste market in upcoming economies

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SweepSmart has been building safe, efficient and inclusive zero-waste systems in upcoming economies for 5 years. In this article, we take stock of the current state and emerging developments in the waste sector in these economies based on our experience in working with local pioneering organisations in Asia and Africa. And why the momentum is now there to accelerate the positive change that is happening all around!

Whenever I would tell people back in 2016 that I had a company in waste management in India, people would look at me with glassy eyes.“Why??” Now, the response is different: “Yes, of course! The oceanis full of plastics. Much of this comes from mismanaged waste in upcoming economies. We should do something about it!”

We started SweepSmart in 2016 because we saw a momentum for change. 

The Indian governments wanted to ‘Clean India’. The Indian people didn’t accept the dirt anymore. And most importantly, there were a lot of amazing pioneers that had already built up something great. Citizens and NGOs that fought for better waste management regulation and have given tens of thousands of waste pickers ID cards, social security and access to better waste management business models. Social enterprises that have built their own private waste collection services and recycling businesses, filling the void in services from local governments. 

But, they need support to build and scale up infrastructure fitting to their context. Western solutions cannot be copy-and-pasted for communities with narrower streets, lower income levels and a huge informal and idle labour force. So we invented solutions that bring smartness from Europe to this context: Bringing the best of two worlds together.

But, it was tough. The market for waste management in upcoming economies was and still is immature and underfunded.

It’s hard to make a business out of waste, especially if you want to pick up more than the valuable streams only. So we experimented, bootstrapped, and learned A LOT from all the great people and organisations we worked with. Our learnings are summarised in “The RealWaste Story”, an interactive presentation with our vision on the waste market in upcoming economies. We made it 2 years ago and it’s now more relevant than ever.

The Real Waste Story

Today we see a new momentum. 

More and more people care about the pollution caused by the waste we produce and realise that it’s a global systemic problem, similar and related to climate change, that requires collective action to solve. This has led to many interesting developments in the last years: 

  1. Regulation is developing on source segregation, plastic bans and ‘polluter pays’ principles like household collection fees and Extended Producers’ Responsibility
  2. Frontline organisations keep emerging, growing and maturing to collect, sort and recycle more waste
  3. The market for recycled plastics and plastic credits is booming, with growing demand for recycled content in our products and ways to offset the plastic that we consume. The demand for recycled plastics is now outpacing supply, leading to a decoupling of the prices of virgin and recycled materials. Great companies are developing this market, like Empower, Plastics for Change, OceanCycle, South Pole, and Repurpose
  4. Large foundations are putting waste management on the agenda, like WWF’s Plastic Smart Cities, UN Habitati’s Waste Wise Cities, the Resilient Cities network and UNDP India’s Prithvi program
  5. Brand owners and plastic producers are taking initiatives to fund plastic waste infrastructure, like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Packaging and Recycling Association for Indonesia Sustainable Environment (PRAISE), Danone Aqua, and Coca-Cola India 
  6. Pioneering organisations have managed to develop solutions to collect waste from the oceans and rivers, like The Ocean Cleanup, Clear Rivers, Seven Clean Seas, Plastic Fischer and Oceans Integrity. While we should prevent waste to even touch the water by implementing proper waste management systems, these kind of solutions will be needed for a while to limit the damage to our oceans and we are happy to help them sort and recycle the plastics out of the collected waste

All these developments are making a difference. A new sector is emerging from the trash heaps, with a better understanding of what is needed to build it. 

For example, what role the different waste processing technologies have to play. There is no silver bullet, we will need a combination of everything for a while, from high- and low-tech mechanical and chemical recycling, to more downcycling solutions like creating building materials, roads or energy out of the low-value waste. 

There is also a better awareness of the kind of waste collection and sorting solutions required. High-tech and mechanised solutions like underground bins with fill sensors and fully mechanised sorting might work in some cases, but most emerging country situations will require more labour-intensive solutions. The right balance between mechanisation and manual labour must be struck. We started with small scale sorting centres with only hand-sorting on conveyor belts. Additional mechanisation steps should be included when scaling up. We’ve developed a next generation Material Recovery Facility together with pioneers from the recycling industry in Europe. It includes a mechanised sorting step to separate 2D from 3D materials, which is expected to bring up sorting efficiency per person with a factor x. 

No waste solution will be successful without support of the local population and waste workers’ communities. 

They need to segregate waste at source and do the hard work of collection, sorting and recycling. In our experience, they are happy to do so if they reap the benefits in fair and decent jobs and a clean living and working environment. And they are able to create viable businesses to grow a lively waste and recycling sector. We call them the pioneers. The pioneers are growing and maturing, and they show that it is possible to create zero waste ecosystems. Some great examples can be found below this article. 

They can also be instrumental in influencing local governments to come along on the zero-waste journey. We have met many progressive government officials that want to and are creating change, but are often hampered by bureaucracy and old ways of working. A strong lobby from the local population can build bottom-up support for long-lasting change. And moreover, influential international organisations like UN Habitat and WWF can influence and support top-down.

So our conclusion is: yes, waste can be turned into happiness! 

Happiness can only thrive if everybody wins. If we all collaborate. And it looks like the world is moving in the right direction. 
Team SweepSmart

Reach out if you want to know more or work together:

Pioneering organisations we have worked with

  1. Organisations like Hasiru Dala in Bangalore and Chintan Environment Action and Research group in Delhi have been pioneers in fighting waste pollution and to protect waste pickers’ rights. For example, Hasiru Dala has given ID cards and social security to over 10.000 waste pickers. They were instrumental in implementing source segregation and decentralised waste management managed by the informal sector in Bangalore. Through their social enterprise Hasiru Dala Innovations, they have developed multiple livelihood business models for waste picker entrepreneurs. 
  2. Electronics City Industrial Township (ELCITA) is the first industrial township in India that has set up its own waste collection service and sorting facility with a profitable model sustaining it. They’ve grown to 150 companies serviced and over 2 tons of waste processed per day, supported by our sorting and baling equipment and IT solutions
  3. Mr. Green Africa has developed a circular model in Kenya, from collection to packaging-to-packaging recycling of rigid plastics. To collect the waste, usually a bottleneck for any processor, they have developed an operational and business model which ensures they have almost too much plastic to handle. They have their own pelletising factory in Nairobi and are currently scaling up towards a ‘flagship’ recycling factory and decentral supply chain for Sub-Saharan Africa.
  4. Empower is working with plastic collectors and recyclers to seamlessly track their materials from collection to processing, offering traceable post consumer plastic to the market. Their digital, blockchain based platform enables decentralised and transparent collection anywhere in the world and ensures that the informal sector becomes a valued part of circular value chains.  
  5. Plastic Whale wants to create plastic-free waters by doing. They fish plastic from Amsterdam's canals, with boats from, huh, the fished plastic! They want to bring their 3-pillar concept of “collect, create and educate” to upcoming economies, so we’re building something together in West-Africa (to be announced soon)