101 Ideas

This post is part of a series that highlights different activities related to the ReFab Dar program. Learn more about the program here.

Twenty year old Javan meets us promptly at 10am the Sinza bus station in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Javan has been working as a waste picker for more than 3 years. Coming from a poor rural village with few opportunities for employment, Javan headed to Dodoma and started collecting plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles for recycling to make a living. Being an opportunistic young man with no formal education, Javan moved to Dar es Salaam seeing the enormity of plastic bottles wasted as cash on the street waiting for him to pick it up. There are 4,000 tonnes of PET plastic generated in Dar es Salaam per month. Of the total amount brought for recycling, 90% of the PET plastic collected is in the form of plastic bottles gathered by individual waste pickers.

Javan is not alone in seeing the potential for earning an income via the plastic recycling businesses in Tanzania. TENA, translated from Swahili as “Again”, was founded in 2013 in Arusha to produce a fair trade market for discarded plastic bottles. The organization expanded to working in Dar es Salaam about 10 months ago and was quickly able to secure a wide network of sales agents, waste pickers, and staff. There is one main office and four satellites where the plastic waste is collected. Each satellite office is fed via a system of Sales Agents which gather the plastic bottles from 10-20 waste pickers. Once the Sales Agent has a sufficient amount of plastic purchased from the waste pickers, TENA sends a small three wheeled “Toyo” truck to pick the bottles and deliver them to the satellite office. The satellite office sends its bottles to the head office where they are shredded, cleaned, and exported.

Last week, the team at ReFab Dar spent time with the men and women working with TENA Recycling. Most of the people interviewed had not heard of 3D printing before and were amazed by its potential to transform plastic bottles into filament that can be used in 3D printers to develop useful products. The most interesting part of the interviews was watching the excited expression on the faces of the recyclers when we explained the technology behind how the bottles become products (see below to learn how Tech For Trade’s extruder technology makes this possible).

Once we discussed with the waste pickers and local sales agents the capacity of 3D printing to create products, they listed a number of suggestions as to what plastic items would sell in the Tanzanian consumer market. From jewelry to sandals and medical items, the list of possible products swelled to more than 101. Imagine: in just a few moments, we brainstormed 101 recycled plastic products that could be made from Tanzania’s plastic bottle waste. While these ideas need to be refined and validated, there is little question that a new industry of that size and scale could provide many jobs and improve the livelihoods of youth.

Everyone who participated in the focus groups showed an eagerness to see the prototypes as they are developed and to be a part of the ongoing project, so that we could together engineer new recycled products with the very people who will create, sell, and use them. And by showing an interest in the opinions of the recyclers, the sessions hosted by the ReFab Dar team helped them feel included and part of a participatory process - a critical objective given the stigma in Tanzania against the recycling industry and of waste pickers.

Above all else, the ReFab Dar program seeks to validate a new way for some to make money when few other options exist. For others, it can lead to profitable business or entrepreneurial endeavors. In any case, both the sales agents and the waste pickers yearn for better market prices for the plastic bottles. Price fluctuations are currently caused by the volatility in oil prices and the price of exporting the plastic flakes that are exported in bulk to Europe and China so income reliability is still a challenge.

ReFab Dar might help normalize these fluctuations for both waste pickers and sales agents.The filament created from plastic bottles will be Ethical Filament, meaning that the Ethical Filament Code of Ethics as well as Technical Code will be utilized in filament production and management process. This should help ensure a more consistent and reasonable price for the recyclers.

As Tech for Trade, the engineering technology partner of ReFabDar, finalizes its extruder technology development and as the filament becomes available for use, ReFab Dar will begin producing and sharing prototypes with the same recyclers who are bringing in the plastic bottles at the start of the process, completing a virtuous circle between supply and demand. These recyclers will be encouraged to re-sell these new products to create new income streams. From plastic bottle to consumer good, the program is an exciting sandbox that could transform the future for Javan and other youth entrepreneurs.