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Why social startups are always the ones who get financed

Researchers at the Johannes Kepler University Linz contribute their expertise in the field of plastics technology to a recycling startup. Together, an economically viable model was developed, which also brought technological progress.

The existing waste management in Kenya is rudimentary and is predominantly informal. Residents dump their household waste on the street. There, it is collected at irregular intervals by private garbage collectors who pick out the recyclable and recyclable. The system is opaque and exploitative: the buyers are middlemen – and the proceeds are uncertain. As a result, the garbage collectors have no fixed income. Those who profit from the opaque value chain are the middlemen.

Inefficient waste management

Not only the socially exploitative conditions in informally organized waste management are problematic, but also their inefficiency. The latter is due to a lack of legal framework, inadequate employment and inaccessible data.

Karim Debabe and Keiran Smith were still students when they founded Mister Green Africa (MGA) in 2010. Together, the business students wanted to integrate the hitherto unregulated recycling sector into a plastic recycling economy. At the same time, they wanted to bring about an improvement in the socio-economic conditions. Through the construction of transshipment points throughout Nairobi, they managed to eliminate the middlemen and provide the garbage collectors with two improvements:

the possibility of direct sales;

higher and stable prices;

to create transparency

The garbage collection was organized via a mobile app. Each garbage collector receives a profile that enables documentation and analysis of its productivity and reliability. Remuneration is success-oriented: garbage collectors who deliver to MGA on a regular basis are entitled to higher prices. When the monthly target is reached, additional social benefits are granted. The influx was huge: Already 2000 garbage collectors have long-term contracts.

In 2017, the startup turned to the Institute for Polymer Materials and Testing (IPMT) and the Institute for Integrated Quality Design (IQD) at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz. The system suffers from the lack of material quality and the marketability of recycled products. Mainly packaging products were produced. The IPMT carried out material tests and found several deficiencies:

Contamination;

non-commercializable colors;

insufficient processing;

low load capacity in mechanical tests;

A first measure was set with the establishment of a hot washing and sorting conveyor belt at the company headquarters in Nairobi.

Dirty and mixed garbage

In cooperation with the Institute for Integrated Quality Design, the business model of the MGA was analyzed. Together they wanted to develop a concept for integrating the informal recycling sector into a socially responsible circular economy. The problem is the strong mixing and contamination of the collected plastics. Processing requires manual labor and industrial washing and sorting processes to obtain high-quality, recyclable material, explains Melanie Wiener from the Institute for Integrated Quality Design in a report by the Kepler Tribune (01/2019).

A problem solution was found in the categorization of the material to be collected, which led to a harmonization of the work steps. The targeted waste collection ensures a relatively constant supply of pre-selected recyclable plastic waste. This is the basic requirement for sorting, washing and shredding on an industrial scale.

Industrial level

The recycling process involves bottles, buckets, containers, etc. These are sorted, freed of solid foreign matter, crushed, washed and dried. So far, the process still ends with the sorted and hot-washed regrind, the so-called flakes, which are distributed by MGA so.

In the near future, MGA wants to use granulation (pelletizing) to integrate another value-adding step, explains researcher Markus Gall. This step has already been completed in the JKU laboratory. Here, the hot-washed flakes using an extrusion system to granules (pellets).

In the process, the flakes are melted, mixed, homogenized and degassed. Subsequently, the melt is formed into a thin strand, which is granulated immediately.

Through this treatment, the material assumes a more homogeneous and better defined form of plastic than is the case with regrind. Granules are better than regrind for storage, transport and especially for further processing and product manufacturing suitable.

Future goals

In the meantime, the recycling products are marketable and their composition and suitability for further processing can be compared with those in the European recycling market.

This success let the project partners formulate three goals for the future:

At the company headquarters in Nairobi, a plastic processing and testing laboratory will be installed to allow material and quality testing in-house. The laboratory should also be used for training purposes. The addressee is the interested public – and especially the youth. The next generation should be able to transfer from foreign aid to self-help with knowledge and creativity.

The garbage collectors are to be taken away from the street. By retraining garbage collectors to be pickup agents that pick up the garbage directly from private households.

The project will be documented in the IQD in order to provide the knowledge subsequently to similar organizations in other developing countries.

At the same time Keiran Smith wants to expand the project. “In the next few years, we want to focus on the East African region, but do not exclude an expansion in other African countries,” he says in the Kepler Tribune. In addition, he sees a lot of potential for countries that have a garbage problem and informal garbage collectors – such as India, the Latin American states or emerging economies in Southeast Asia.


Also published on Medium.

Published inStartups

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