Jen Robertson, Senior Project Manager at Keep Britain Tidy and WasteAid volunteer has been supporting the UK Aid-funded plastics recycling programme in the Gambia.
Whilst still considering myself a relative newbie to the professional waste world, it took me very little time to discover WasteAid and realise they were one to watch. Their work in low-income countries where there is no solid waste management, sharing recycling skills and working with community-based organisations to help develop waste collection and recycling businesses, inspired me to get involved.
This involvement started with a sponsored walk in June 2018 followed by a volunteering opportunity at Deer Shed festival a month later, helping to raise both funds and awareness of the work they do, and spending a hot, sticky and very messy day making fantastical sea creatures out of recycled packaging and scrap materials with enthusiastic families. Around the same time that the last flecks of neon paint finally wore off my body, I was approached by WasteAid about their new plastics recycling project in The Gambia.
The project sees WasteAid working with two NGOs – Women’s Initiative the Gambia (WIG) and TARUD – to set up a training centre for plastic waste processing in the coastal town of Gunjur. With plans for building the training centre underway, Zoë Lenkiewicz (WasteAid’s Head of Programmes and Engagement) told me she was heading out to Gunjur in November 2018, and would I care to join her? Her remit was to meet with the project delivery partners and have a look at the site selected for the centre to be built on (which was currently an informal dumpsite).
In addition, Zoë was hoping to meet some of the target groups of young people, women and adults with disabilities who would undergo the first rounds of recycling training in plastic waste processing. These trainees would be learning how to turn plastic waste into items such as paving tiles, crochet bags and purses.
My involvement wasn’t to be purely observational. WasteAid had spent previous months developing their award-winning Toolkit, but felt it would now benefit from a section on monitoring and evaluation, to allow impact measurement of their work. With my experience in delivering behavioural change projects for Keep Britain Tidy’s Waste Services team, and tapping into the knowledge offered by the Centre for Social Innovation and Environmental Surveying teams, I was able to develop a series of evaluation surveys, to be trialled in Gunjur.
A street-level waste survey was created to enable evaluation of types and amounts of street waste in the local area. A dumpsite survey would provide data on the number of, and hazards present at, the many local dumpsites. Finally, an attitudes and behaviours survey would capture the current views on waste and how local people were currently disposing of it. With no solid waste management in place, residents are currently forced to either dump or burn waste. The impacts to public health, livestock and the environment are becoming more widely known thanks to the awareness raising done by WasteAid and other likeminded organisations. All three surveys were designed to be undertaken at key milestones (nominally every six months) throughout the project lifespan.
Having never travelled to Africa, I was both excited and nervous about the trip. The Gambia certainly did not disappoint, nor did the experience of volunteering with WasteAid. Hosted by wonderful people including the delightful Manlafi (driver, fixer and general superstar) the days were filled with trips to project offices, training members of WIG and TARUD in surveying techniques, filming plastic waste on dumpsites and beaches and (as a special treat for me) early morning birdwatching excursions to see kingfishers, ospreys and pelicans. There were also unexpected plastic waste conferences and invitations to meet the British Commissioner, meaning no day was dull (or predictable).
One morning we visited Tanji, the largest fishing port and commercial fish market in The Gambia, to document the levels of plastic waste present. To say it was eye-opening would be rather an understatement. Plastic waste was strewn as far as the eye could see – caused, no doubt, by both the workers on the beach as well as the tide, bringing in fresh waves of ocean plastic. With no current disposal alternatives offered, it was obvious to see the impact of the plastic waste accumulating in this small, beautiful, West African country. I was pleased to be associated with one of the rare projects seeking to tackle this growing crisis, but terrified by the sight of the plastic waste surrounding my feet.
Currently my professional focus is on the UK’s domestic waste landscape – trying to nudge and persuade people to engage in services already available, or recycle a little more, a little better. With the contrast that I am now able to make with towns such as Gunjur, where waste services don’t exist and current habits and practices are both deeply entrenched and highly problematic, I feel stronger than ever that the work undertaken by WasteAid is at the very spearhead of the solutions desperately needed to combat this global issue.
WasteAid would like to thank Jen Robertson and Keep Britain Tidy for their ongoing support and collaboration.
Donate to WasteAid and help communities like Gunjur manage their plastic waste safely and sustainably.