Victoria Manning of Vitaka Consulting Ltd joined the WasteAid team in Gunjur, the Gambia, for our first plastics recycling training session. Read about Vic’s experience in a place with no waste management.

As a chartered town planner with a specialism in waste, I am aware of how important good waste collection and management services are to the functioning of a well-run town or city. If not properly dealt with, waste poses a serious threat to public health and the environment. As a regular traveller to places with no waste collection or management I became interested in understanding more about this issue, and when I discovered WasteAid I was keen to get involved.

I started my volunteering apprenticeship with WasteAid by writing content for the website, including a summary of the UN Environment’s report on tackling the challenge of single-use plastics around the world.  When I was invited to go to Gunjur in The Gambia to help implement a plastics recycling project, I jumped at the chance. I’d visited West Africa on a number of previous occasions and it is one of my favourite places in the world.

The opportunity to implement a plastics recycling programme in Gunjur came when WasteAid won a Small Charities Challenge Fund grant from UK Aid. The two-year funding sees WasteAid working in partnership with TARUD, a local community development organisation, and Women’s Initiative the Gambia (WIG) to train disadvantaged women, young people and people with disabilities to turn plastic waste from a pollution problem into an economic asset; in this case paving tiles.

The coastal village of Gunjur is a delightful place, full of warm and friendly people. It is also a typical community with no solid waste management, and where residents are consequently forced to either dump or burn their waste. At the dump site opposite our accommodation I witnessed children playing on the waste, goats eating it, and people living right next door.

Since WasteAid’s last visit to Gunjur in November 2018, a number of surveys have been carried out by members of Women’s Initiative The Gambia (WIG), one of the local partner organisations. The surveys included an attitudes and behaviour survey and I spent some of my down-time in Gunjur collating the results. It was clear that because of the plastics recycling project, the community at large had developed a good understanding about the health, environmental and economic impacts of dumpsites, littering and burning of waste.

My first full day was spent with the WasteAid team buying key components for the waste recycling project. This included safety clothing, trowels, buckets and weighing scales.

We also stopped off at Ishmaila’s metal workshop to check on progress making the equipment needed for the process, including barrels, moulds and shovels. Pierre Kamsouloum, the inventor of the paving tile process and WasteAid’s in-house trainer, took measurements and asked for final adjustments to be made.

The next day was the opening ceremony. Over 100 people showed up to mark the occasion including village leaders, partner organisations, project participants, curious locals and traditional communicators who drummed, danced and sang in responses to the speeches. I was in charge of photography so sadly/luckily wasn’t able to show off my moves.

Then the serious business of training started. All thirty participants packed into the local makeshift cinema space for an introduction to the plastics recycling project. They heard Pierre’s inspirational story of growing up near a dumpsite in northern Cameroon where he experimented melting down carrier bags and plastic wrap, mixing it with sand, and eventually developing the process to make paving tiles and other building materials.

The practical training began with a safety briefing and how to use the safety equipment. Next Pierre demonstrated how to identify the right type of plastic to make the tiles and weigh out exactly the right amount of plastic and sand. In a well-ventilated workshop, the trainees learnt to melt the plastic in a specially-prepared barrel, adding sand and mixing it thoroughly to produce a cement-like texture. They transferred the completed mix to the tile moulds and within 15 minutes the tiles were set.  It was very exciting (and quite moving) to see the first batch of completed tiles from the Gunjur plastics project. I confess I carried one of these tiles home with me as a reminder of that day (they weigh nearly two kilos each!).

I was particularly keen to ensure that the trainees with disabilities were able to participate fully in the project.  Some of the disabled participants were not able to join in with all stages of making the tiles, so WasteAid project manager Zoë Lenkiewicz worked with local businesses, such as tailors and carpenters, to adapt clothing and make chairs to enable full inclusion for all participants in the project. 

Pierre trained a total of thirty participants from Gunjur over a period of two weeks, and at the closing ceremony each received a certificate of competence. They are now working as a team to collect, sort, process and market the products, using the skills and preferences of each participant. Over the next year, a further 60 people from the village will be trained to take part in the programme.  The next order of business for the participants is choosing a name for the recycling centre!

While in The Gambia I took the opportunity to meet with the country’s town planners in the capital Banjul.  The Physical Planning team explained that dumpsites are often surrounded by development, but rapid urbanisation and competition for land makes finding suitable locations to replace open dumpsites with environmentally safe landfill sites very difficult. It was interesting to learn that the challenges of waste management really are universal – finding a suitable site is often the biggest hurdle to overcome, whether you are in Europe or rural Africa.

I am delighted to have been invited back to Gunjur in June 2019 when the next class of recyclers will be trained. WasteAid are organising a major fundraising drive from 1 May to 31 July, and everyone is invited to get involved and help make a difference. Having seen the impact of this work first-hand, I can say it is well worth supporting WasteAid and their work in poor communities.

Read another from our Volunteer Voices series: My week with waste in the Gambia

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