Why India’s ban on buying plastic waste poses a huge challenge for Uganda’s recycling industry
Updated: Jun 13, 2020
In our efforts to recycle plastic waste and create income opportunities in Uganda, we’ve had a number of thrilling breakthroughs in the last few months. From new branding, new friends, and recycling over 9 million bottles, we’ve had lots to cheer about!
However, the turn of the year hasn’t been without its challenges. Namely, India has stopped buying imported plastic waste from Uganda.
This represents a massive challenge to both our operations and Uganda’s plastic recycling industry as a whole.
What was India’s role in the industry?
India held a major role in Uganda’s efforts to recycle its plastic waste. This was where Uganda was sending its plastic so it could be recycled. Furthermore, India was paying for this waste, which meant they were the ones pumping the majority of cash into Uganda’s recycling industry.
This helped Uganda by firstly providing an output for the plastic waste, reducing the levels of plastic waste going to landfill and/or being burnt. Secondly, by providing a financial demand for the plastic, India was creating thousands of jobs in the industry - all from those who transport the waste overseas, to the waste-pickers who first collect the bottles from the streets.
In return, India could recycle the waste into new products which it could generate a profit from. It was cheaper for them than producing their own plastic from scratch.
Up until recently, it was an arrangement that both countries benefited from.
What’s Changed for India?
India’s government has now banned imports of plastic waste. This decision was made in light of the growing realisation that the country should be focusing on its own environmental crisis. Currently, they generate 26,000 tons of plastic waste a day and the government has decided the time has come to focus on closing the gap between their waste generation and recycling capacity.
This follows China making a similar move in 2017, who for decades had been the main destination for the world’s plastic and paper waste.
What does this situation mean for Uganda?
Without India or another major buyer interested, it means there is no demand for Uganda’s plastic waste. Therefore, there is no value in it or incentive for people to collect it like before. Organisations can’t buy the plastic off individuals, because they have no one to sell it on to - it will simply sit there on their premises.
For the thousands who work in the sector, whether an individual waste picker, or those who work for the organisations which purchased plastic in bulk, their occupation is in serious jeopardy.
On top of the economic impact and threat to people’s jobs, it also presents serious consequences for Uganda’s environment. Uganda disposes of 600 tonnes of plastic every day, and whilst exporting some of it to India to be recycled was never a perfect solution, for a country with no formal waste management system as it is, it did help manage the problem to some extent.
Without this, the only current option will be to send the waste to landfill, wherein all likelihood it will be burned, presenting a serious hazard to the population’s health and the environment.
If Uganda doesn’t have a way to export its rubbish, and doesn’t have a method to deal with it responsibility in-country, it finds itself facing a very serious problem.
Will another country take India’s place?
In short, things are currently very uncertain and it’s hard to say.
Even though China and India have now banned imports of plastic, there are still countries willing to buy plastic waste such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, amongst others.
And this is what happened when China dropped out of the market in 2017 and the market froze for a time. But then India stepped in, and whilst the price never fully recovered, activity in Uganda’s plastic recycling industry did resume.
However, with major countries who were previously willing to purchase plastic waste now stopping in favour of focusing on their own plastic problem, and with the countries which do still accept it imposing tighter restrictions on what they are willing to take, the global demand for purchasing plastic waste from other countries appears to be dwindling.
Furthermore, many western countries still rely on exporting their plastic waste to other countries (and are often willing to pay for it!), which could add to Uganda’s challenge of finding another country with the capacity to accept their plastic.
At best, finding another country to take India’s place appears to be a short-term solution.
A far better solution, like China and India, would be for Uganda to focus on forming a closed-loop system within the country. This would allow it to independently manage it’s plastic waste, recycling it into plastic which can be used again.
What does this change mean for Eco Brixs?
Our long-term plan here at Eco Brixs has always been to create our own closed-loop recycling system, which is independent of other organisations. We pay for the plastic people bring to us, and in turn, we recycle the waste into items of value (our Eco-Products) which can be sold on at a profit. Through this revenue, we can pay more individuals for the plastic they bring to us, and so the cycle continues.
We’d be giving trash a value. And at the same time, cleaning up the country and creating thousands of income opportunities. Furthermore, it’s a model which could grow, helping the whole of Uganda to eventually deal with its plastic problem and provide the national closed-loop system discussed above.
However, as we’re still in the start-up phase, and whilst we raise funds to build the factory which will make the Eco-Products, we’ve been selling bales of plastic like the general market, which was essentially funded by India. This enabled us to keep making a positive impact on the environment and economy, whilst also giving us time to work on setting up the factory line.
We do have measures in place to ensure over the short-term we can continue to keep paying the local community for their plastic, but this change in the market does present a major challenge to us. Our need to raise the funds for a factory line has now become a major priority.
As a result, we've taken the first steps in setting up our closed-loop system - we've ordered a small machine line to start producing Eco-Products on a small scale, which will be online later this year. This will allow us to start producing innovative products from people's plastic waste and generate a new stream of revenue to aid our sustainability.
Granted, it's not the entire solution as we still need to raise funds for the larger factory build in order to process the sheer quantity of plastic brought to us, which needs to be recycled, but this represents an exciting step in forming a circular economy to cope with Uganda's plastic problem.
India’s decision to no longer accept imports of plastic waste has large implications for Uganda’s recycling industry. It puts thousands of jobs under threat, whilst also making the environmental situation in Uganda look bleaker.
A new buyer may be found, but it is looking increasingly less likely, and far from a long-term solution.
A closed-loop system is now needed more than ever.
For us, but more importantly - for Uganda as a whole.
Would you like to help with our plans to construct the full-factory line and establishing a large-scale, closed-loop system to help tackle Uganda's plastic problem?
Please do contact us if you have some ideas or are able to support us in our fundraising efforts.