How Estonia is Changing Waste Management in Africa

In 2008, 50,000 volunteers gathered for a single day to clean up over 10,000 tons of litter from Estonia’s cities and countryside. This was the “Let’s Do It!” campaign, and no one could have predicted that in only 10 years’ time, it would become a global movement. In 2018, “World Cleanup Day”, as it is now called, was observed in 169 countries, with 36 million volunteers collecting hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage worldwide. Seeing the success of and passion for the movement, the Let’s Do It Foundation (LDIF) declared that the time was right to move from reactive cleaning efforts to initiating systemic change. “The Keep It Clean Plan” was introduced in our partner countries, based on the Estonian example and supported by the Estonian Centre for International Development (ESTDEV).

Kadri Kalle. Photo: Alina Birjuk

“We created The Keep It Clean Plan as a proactive way to approach World Cleanup Day,” explains Kadri Kalle, Education Program Manager at the LDIF. “Our purpose is to consider what happens after the cleanup day. Our documented plan articulates the principles of zero waste and the practices – including differentiated waste management – that help achieve the future to which we aspire.” The challenges of waste management that Estonia faced in the 1990s are similar to those that many African countries are facing today. Estonia’s victory over these challenges was the result of very clearly set goals, like disposing of hazardous waste to avoid environmental pollution in landfills. Estonia also received support from Scandinavian experts, who educated Estonian specialists and showed the nation what could be achieved.

“Today, we are in the opposite role. We can use Estonia’s model as a tool for supporting our partner countries in accomplishing their development goals,” Kalle believes.

Waste Management Works Best at the Local Level

In 2017, Kenya passed a law banning the use of plastic bags. Though it was a bold step, it did not have the intended impact on plastic pollution. Two years later, in 2019, Nairobi sought to act on its estimated 15%-recycling rate by replacing the plastic bags commonly found in supermarkets with thin, synthetic fabric bags. Indeed, replacing single-use plastics with other disposable items did not prove to be a solution either.

Photo: Let’s Do It Foundation

The goal of The Keep It Clean Plan was originally to improve waste management in African countries by training and supporting civic organizations. According to Kalle, local conditions do not always equate with Estonian experience, and goals have shifted more toward finding motivated local groups who can adapt training programs to the needs and conditions of African communities. This serves the double benefit of helping to develop a circular economy at the local level.

In some cases, waste management is not a priority at the national level, making systemic change only possible in local communities with invested stakeholders. According to Kadri Kalle, one example of such change is the Kutoka Urban Slums Initiative, which aims to improve the lives of people, particularly waste pickers. Most of these individuals live and work in Dandora, one of Africa’s largest unregulated dumpsites. The Kutoka Network teams with Dandora residents to pinpoint areas for change and to find solutions to challenges affecting the community; it also presents training programs to residents, aimed at increasing awareness and knowledge.

“We can use Estonia’s model as a tool for supporting our partner countries in accomplishing their development goals .”

– Kadri Kalle, Education Program Manager at the Let’s Do It Foundation 

Transitioning to Cooperatives to Improve Working Conditions

In the Global South, waste pickers are an important link in waste management as they sort recyclable materials out of garbage. While in Kenya, waste is sorted mostly in dumpsites, Tanzania has been piloting a different kind of waste management – material recovery facility in the Bonyokwa area, which is operated by a cooperative of waste pickers.

Bonyokwa is a community of about 14,000 people, where households sort their garbage into four categories (bio-waste, recyclable waste, household hazardous waste such as diapers and medicine, and scrap), and garbage is collected six days a week.  At the material recovery facility, workers further sort recyclables, nearly all of which can be sold to recycling companies. Bio-waste is composted on-site, and some is used to grow black soldier fly larvae that are then sold as chicken feed. The compost is also used to grow vegetables in a small garden next to the sorting station, which are sold in the community.

The project is led by one of the members of the Let’s Do It movement Ana Rocha and her organization Nipe Fagio.

Photo: Xavier Messina

“Our collaboration with our partner, LDIF, was an opportunity to reflect on our recruitment of zero waste ambassadors in Africa, and on the impact that committed individuals’ influence can have on their communities,“ says Ana Rocha, Executive Director of Nipe Fagio. “It is not enough to simply begin a zero-waste initiative; it takes passionate people who can mobilize their communities and create momentum. We look forward to growing our partnership to pursue zero waste education,” added Rocha.

“Sharing best practices and supporting local change makers are ways that we can support the progress in Africa,” remarked Kalle.

“It is not enough to simply begin a zero-waste initiative; it takes passionate people who can mobilize their communities and create momentum.”

Ana Rocha, Executive Director of Nipe Fagio

Collective Responsibility to Support Waste Management in Africa

There has been a lot of interest generated in Europe and Africa regarding Estonia’s deposit packaging system. This system, created in 2005, is a unified national network for the automated collection, counting, and processing of beverage packaging. The costs of this system are covered by a deposit placed on glass and plastic bottles and metal cans. Using this system, Estonia has collected over 4.8 billion recycled containers.

In many African countries, policy changes are also on the table. An Extended Producer Responsibility approach is under discussion in Kenya, for which the national government is looking to Europe, especially Estonia, for guidance. They seek to create a transparent and environmentally sustainable solution.

“Just as other countries supported us in the 1990s, so can we share our experience in making legislation and putting effective waste-management into practice,” Kalle attested.

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The Estonian Center for International Development is a state foundation that organizes and coordinates Estonia’s participation in international development cooperation and humanitarian aid projects, with the aim of increasing Estonia’s contribution to global security and sustainable development.