A conversation with Zoë Lenkiewicz, from Waste Aid Charity about their waste aid care program around the World
by Aimee Rigby/28th-December-2020
Thank you for joining us today Zoë, would you like to tell us a little bit about who you are and what your role in Waste Aid is?
Thanks Aimee. So, my name is Zoë Lenkiewicz, and I am head of programmes and engagement at the UK based charity called Waste Aid. We share waste management and recycling skills in lower income countries, helping governments and communities manage their waste properly, so that it doesn’t create climate change emissions and it doesn’t pollute the oceans and the land; and to help generate jobs in the process.
Fantastic- so could you tell us a little bit more about the issue- why was Waste Aid founded?
We come from the UK waste management sector, which is doing fairly well, is fairly well resourced; but if we look at the bigger picture reasons of why we do waste management, primarily it’s public sanitation, yeah? It’s to stop us getting diseases. But the big issues that have come about lately that people are becoming more aware of, are climate change emissions and, of course, marine plastic pollution. Now, what we find is that there’s I think, one in three people around the world who don’t have any kind of waste management service.
So, they’ve never had a waste collection even, and if you imagine what it would be like if we had no bin men at all, and we just had to deal with our waste ourselves; so, when you’re in that situation your options are to either throw your waste just on the ground, or in a riverbed, or to set it on fire in your yard. And both of these obviously have really significant implications for public health, and for the environment. So, we work with communities and governments to find appropriate waste management solutions for their local areas.
So how do you decide upon, or come up with, the best solution for each project or location?
What we do is first of all, we will look at how much waste is arising, what different materials are in that waste- so we’ll do an analysis maybe at a dump site, or, you know, wherever the waste is arising- separate it into food waste, different kinds of plastics, metals, cardboard, and so on. And then, we’ll identify what are the main issues here, and normally I would say it tends to come down to two main materials: one of those is organic waste, so your food waste, garden waste, that kind of thing; and the other one is plastics, particularly flexible plastics. Now, the reason that these two materials tend to be the most problematic and therefore, the area that we focus on the most at Waste Aid, is because they are pretty low value, yeah? So, materials that have a reasonably high value, there already tends to be a recycling chain.
For example, you could go anywhere in the world, pretty much everywhere in the world, somebody there will be collecting aluminium, for example. Right, aluminium is worth about £600 a tonne. Compared to that, steel is worth about £60 a tonne, and then, you know, flexible plastics and organic waste are pretty much worthless, unless you manage them properly. But the problem again, then, is that food waste and flexible plastics often tend to be mixed in together and it just makes this disgusting mess that no one really wants to deal with, can’t blame them, and once they’re mixed in together you can’t really do a lot with it. So, then, often the crux of the project is working out how we can get those materials separated at source, so at the point where they become a waste, get them put into separate containers and then we can manage them properly and find a sustainable route for their management.
Zoë Lenkiewicz, training people in recycling waste in an African Village © Wasteaid
Fantastic! So, can you tell us about some of your most recent projects more specifically, what happened?
I’ve been project managing a small UK aid funded project in the Gambia, which is a tiny country on the West coast of Africa, and there we’ve been working in a rural village on the coast. We’ve trained 90 villagers and 24 trainers from the capital city to collect and sort flexible plastics because identifying the different kind of plastic is actually probably the most technical part of the process. So, once you’ve identified the correct kind of flexible plastic, called LDPE, which is the plastic- it’s like slightly stretchy plastic that’s usually used for carrier bags and that kind of thing, and then we melt that plastic very gently over a small flame so it turns from a solid into a liquid, right? So, we’re not burning it, it is very important to understand we are not burning it, we’re keeping the temperature sufficiently low so it’s like melting a block of butter, yeah? Turning it from solid into a liquid. Once it’s turned into a liquid, we mix sand in and stir at around, and it turns into a mixture that looks very much like concrete. And then once that’s all mixed in together, we just turn it out into tile moulds and we’re making paving tiles and roof tiles that are very durable. What’s nice about it, is that we’re taking a plastic that when it’s in the environment its durability is a problem because it doesn’t biodegrade, it sticks around forever, or breaks into small pieces and gets into the food chain. So we’re using the durability, that characteristic of the plastic, in an application that we want to last a long time; so paving tiles for people’s courtyards, or footpaths along the side of roads, and that kind of thing.
Fantastic, so how did COVID change the way that you worked in these countries, have you been doing any projects during the pandemic?
Obviously it’s had quite a big impact. I mean, COVID hasn’t really, we haven’t seen the same sort of numbers yet in Africa as we’ve seen in Europe- and there could be many reasons for that, no one’s quite sure why, no one’s quite sure if it’s going to increase eventually in the same way that it has in Europe- but we’ve had to respond in a few different ways.
We’re working with a partner organisation in Kenya on the shores of Lake Naivasha. Now, the groups that we’re working with, they have the responsibility in their community for public sanitation. So they’ve been doing the litter picks and so on, and community awareness raising about waste and recycling, some recycling initiatives as well, but what we did with them was we pivoted the projects to use that funding to specifically address Covid resilience in the community, and we installed hand washing stations and a lot of sanitization and awareness raising around that kind of hand hygiene, because there weren’t really any hand washing stations at all, in the village of 7000 people.
In cases like that, where our partners had to continue working, we focused very much on COVID resilience. And then other projects we had to put on hold, sadly, because quite often the main activities are travelling around on public transport to go to community meetings, talking to village elders and young mothers, and so on, about waste and recycling and then also doing waste handling; whether that’s sorting through different materials to recycle them, or make sure they’re disposed of safely.
Now, a few months ago when COVID first started to arrive in Europe, we looked carefully at the evidence which, at the time, suggested that Covid could last on shiny surfaces, so rigid plastics and metals, for up to 72 hours; which is obviously a concern to us, because in places where there isn’t a formal waste collection service, there’s no way of saying to people: “please don’t dump your waste until you’ve had it for three days.” So, we’ve had to pause those, but now, looking at the way that things are playing out, it hasn’t hit the countries that we’re working in as much as it has in Europe. So, we’re looking now to start up activities again very slowly, but instead of doing community meetings and that kind of thing, we are now looking at doing lots more radio adverts and WhatsApp messages and that kind of thing, to help spread awareness and spread knowledge without having to put people, large groups of people, together in a room together.
Above images; Top 2 Pictures: Recycling plastics training in the coastal town of Gunjur, The Gambia. first and second image. Bottom image. The informal settlement of Kwa-Muhia in Kenya is home to some 7,000 people, many of whom live below the poverty line. WasteAid has been working in partnership with the Kwa Muhia Environmental Group since 2019 to help improve the way household waste is managed. © Wasteaid
That’s understandable. So, you’ve also created posters and how-to guides for dealing with Covid in lower income countries, such as how to make hand sanitizer. Could you walk us through some of these how-to’s?
At Waste Aid, in 2017 we published the Waste Aid toolkit, which is a great guide for communities in lower income countries for, you know, to make a start with managing their waste because quite often there’s no system at all. So, we produced that a few years ago, it’s an award-winning publication, and at the back end of that document there was 12 illustrated step-by-step how-to guides for turning waste materials into useful products, like the paving tiles, or like compost, and lots of other things. So, when the COVID situation started to reveal itself, we created a few COVID specific how-to guides for our partner communities. One of these is hand sanitizer.
You can make it quite simply yourself, there’s plenty of instructions online; basically, you need rubbing alcohol, so the kind of alcohol that you would buy from the chemist or pharmacy, and then some aloe vera gel, or something like that, that’s going to make it less harsh on your skin because very strong alcohol can really lead to dryness and irritation of the skin otherwise. So, then it’s quite simple, you just mix the alcohol and aloe vera together in a bowl, add some drops of essential oils, such as lavender or something like that if you like, to give it a nice flavour- and stir it so it’s nice and smooth. And then, once it’s done, you just need to put it into a small container like we have hand sanitiser- it’s really that simple, very straight forward, very affordable way for people to make their own hand sanitizer. But of course, soap is actually more effective at killing germs on your hands than hand sanitizer, and what’s nice is that you can actually make soap from waste oil- so, it’s right up our street, as you can imagine! And there’s instructions on our website for that as well. So, you can take, for example, oil that’s been used for frying, then you need to mix caustic soda in water, and then you pour that over the cooking oil and mix it together gently and it starts to start this process called saponification, where it turns into a solid soap. So, once you’ve got that, you leave it for, I think 30 days, and then you can slice it into soap bars and you’re good to go.
Well, thank you for that tip. So, how can our listeners help Waste Aid, how can they get involved?
Great, thanks. So, first of all, I’d encourage everyone to visit our website, wasteaid.org, there’s lots of ideas there on how you can get involved. Obviously, at the moment, this year as I’m sure everyone is experiencing as well, it’s not been an easy year for fundraising.
We normally have an annual walk for Waste Aid that we move around the country each year- we had to cancel that, sadly, and we had some corporate fundraising events as well that we had to cancel.
We’re really, really, welcoming to anybody that would like to get involved in fundraising and doing their bit to help support communities in very poor parts of the world that, at the moment, are just drowning in plastic really, and by partnering with Waste Aid, we can really help create jobs, and make sure that that plastic stays out of the environment.
On our website, there’s a ‘get involved’ section, and lots of ideas there for individual fundraising, or workplace fundraising, we’ve got corporate social responsibility information if you’re in a business that would like to develop a CSR partnership.
We’ve also got a shop where you can buy some goodies and we will shortly be putting our 2021 calendar on there.So, every year, we run a photography competition and we invite photos from around the world, or people doing amazing things with waste.
We call it the ‘wonders of waste’ photo competition, and we had some great entries this year.
So, we’re just putting that together now and trying to fill up with the last few corporate sponsors, so if anybody’s interested, please do get in touch!
Then it will be on sale in the next month or so hopefully. So, yeah, there’s lots of different ways that you can get involved, whether you’re an individual, or a business, and we really would encourage you to take a look and you can see what other companies and other individuals have done and hopefully you will be inspired to get involved.
I hope some of our listeners will get involved. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Thanks a lot Aimee, it’s been a pleasure and thanks for listening