Waste Becomes Wealth: A Kenya Business Turns Plastic Bags Into Handbags, Jewelry

 

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Ciru Segal, cofounder of Plastic Fantastic Kenya, sorts items that her company has made from recycled plastics. Jesah Segal, her husband, and their baby are on the right. Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya
Kenya

People in Nairobi collectively use about 2 million plastic bags in a month, and most of them are dumped haphazardly, clogging drainage systems and littering the streets. Plastic Fantastic Kenya collects the plastic bags and turns them into jewelry and handbags.

NAIROBI, KENYA — Growing up at the foot of Ngong Hills, about 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) southwest of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, Ciru Segal enjoyed the green scenery of her neighborhood and the fresh air that came with it. She and her siblings fetched drinking water from and played in the rivers near their home.

“I remember that after church, we would go to Kandisi River to hang out and swim with my friends. When it was raining, we would be cautioned of crocodiles that inhabited the rivers around our home,” she says of her neighborhood, which borders Nairobi National Park.

Gradually, a sea of concrete took over the area as Nairobi expanded. The lush greenery that Segal so enjoyed disappeared.

With the concrete came plastic bags ─ lots of them. They clogged drainage systems and choked the ground. A river in the area became a dump site.

“Nairobi has really changed. I cannot believe that this dusty and littered place is what we once called our serene abode,” Segal says.

Segal says she wanted to do something to fix the problem, but she knew that just cleaning up the river wouldn’t be a long-term solution.

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Plastic Fantastic Kenya cofounder Ciru Segal makes a bracelet from a polyethylene bag outside the company’s Nairobi workshop.

Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya

“I did not want to fight the manufacturers who would have argued that they were providing jobs to hundreds of Kenyans,” she says. “Instead, I wanted to look for ways of working with the problem to create an opportunity for the locals while creating an attitude change towards waste disposal.”

Three years ago, Segal and her husband, Jesah Segal, founded Plastic Fantastic Kenya, which recycles plastic bags and uses them to make crafts such as handbags and jewelry. Though plastic bags continue to be an issue in Nairobi, Plastic Fantastic Kenya is putting some of this waste to good use.

About 2 million plastic bags are used in Nairobi every month, a 2005 report by the United Nations Environment Programme says, citing the most recent research widely available. Most of the bags are used once, then discarded. Plastics make up 20 percent of the more than 2,400 tons of solid waste produced in Nairobi every day, according to a 2006 waste management strategy by the Kenya National Cleaner Production Centre.

We need to go beyond collecting to dealing with the root cause of the problem, which is making people aware of the dangers of using the polythene bags.

More than two dozen African countries have either announced or implemented bans on plastic bags, with various degrees of success. In Uganda, the government conducts raids to seize illegal bags. Smugglers spirit the bags across the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. (Read our series on plastic bag bans here.)

But in Kenya, bans on plastic bags have failed to take effect. The government announced a ban on thin plastic bags in 2007 and again in 2011, but they were never implemented.

In the meantime, Segal is showing communities in Nairobi how to create wealth out of this waste.

Segal developed her idea for Plastic Fantastic Kenya when she joined Amani Institute, an organization that trains social entrepreneurs. She studied social innovation management for five months, then, while still at the institute, she and fellow student Jesah Segal cofounded Plastic Fantastic Kenya. Jesah Segal is now her husband.

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Henry Chumba, one of the artisans at the Plastic Fantastic workshop, does finishing work to a bracelet using a candle flame. The bracelet is made from a polyethylene bag.

Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ Kenya

Segal, who learned crafting skills from her mother, recruited a few women and trained them to make jewelry, handbags and other accessories from old plastic bags. The enterprise now employs 10 to 15 people on a casual basis.

Plastic Fantastic Kenya runs a campaign in partnership with the Aga Khan Academy, Nairobi, in which children collect plastic bags from their homes and bring them to school. The company then collects the plastic bags at the school and hires women to wash them and cut them into shreds. Sometimes the company hires independent contractors to make the crafts.

Virginia Wambui, a contractor, says that occasionally she gets big orders for bags and jewelry from Plastic Fantastic Kenya that require her to employ other women.

“At times, I get up to 60 bags, which of course I cannot do on my own. So I have a group of eight women whom I work with,” Wambui said in a phone interview.

I am optimistic that, over time, we will reclaim the beauty of our city.

But despite the demand for the products, which are sold online, at trade exhibitions and through word of mouth, Plastic Fantastic Kenya has yet to break even, Segal says. The company doesn’t have heavy-duty sewing machines or other industrial tools. Workers use handheld grinders and polishing machines, she says.

Even so, industry insiders say the business model is viable. Aisha Karanja, executive director for the Green Belt Movement, an environmental NGO, says Plastic Fantastic Kenya provides a solution to one part of the challenge of plastic bag waste, but there’s more to be done.

“We need to go beyond collecting to dealing with the root cause of the problem, which is making people aware of the dangers of using the polythene bags,” Karanja says.

In other countries, plastic bags have been made costly to discourage their use, Karanja says, but they are still very affordable in Kenya. The government should make the bags more expensive to buy, or ban them entirely, she says.

Meanwhile, Segal hopes her work will make Nairobi a cleaner place in the long run.

“I am optimistic that, over time, we will reclaim the beauty of our city,” she says.

 

Lilian Kaivilu, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kiswahili.