Cutting down the use of plastic is a major challenge in Gulu, Uganda. And recycling plastic is an even greater one! Born in Gulu and educated in Denmark, Peter Okwoko wanted to make his city cleaner and greener. Together with Paige Balcom, he co-founded Takataka Plastics in 2020 and developed low-cost technologies to recycle plastic waste into products while simultaneously providing employment and a ‘healing workplace’ to internally displaced youths.
Sucheta talks to Peter about the social and environmental change Takataka Plastics has brought about in Gulu, the challenges in his endeavours and why we need to be responsible consumers.
Addressing the problem at hand
In Gulu, Uganda, one can find used plastic soda and water bottles thrown all around the city. Even the drains are clogged with plastics. There are no plastic recycling units in Gulu. The nearest recycling facilities are available 300 kilometres away in Kampala, the capital city. Even in Kampala, the plastic is shredded and the flakes are sent to China and India where the flakes are made into polyester fabric for making carpets or plastic bottles. So transporting the waste there doesn’t make sense.
Takataka (meaning ‘waste’ in Swahili) Plastics came up with innovative solutions to collect and recycle plastic into affordable and sustainable tiles —which are more than twice as durable as conventional ceramic alternatives— and coasters. Owing to the pandemic, they now produce high-quality and cost-efficient face shields as their top priority. 10,000 face shields have been distributed so far across Uganda. Since 2020, they have recycled approximately 10 tonnes of plastic waste. By next year they aim to build a capacity to recycle about 9 tonnes of plastic every year.
Behind the scenes
Takataka plastics have set up ‘plastic banks’ around the city— in schools, hotels, markets and other public places. Once these get filled up, the youth volunteers collect them and bring them to the segregation centres to be segregated based on different colours. They are then shredded, melted, and put into different moulds for tiles, coasters and face shields. After the due quality check, they are sent out to the local markets and distribution agencies in other districts.
For creating jobs for the youth, Takataka Plastics identified youth from organisations in various districts in Uganda and trained them in marketing. They are sent to different clients and they get a commission on every product.
The dedicated team comprises three engineers, a product manager, interns from Gulu University, University of California, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University. The head of Partnerships and Community Engagement looks after the sensitization of people, both online and offline, at the community level in environmental sustainability and waste management. The Production Team consists entirely of youths from the street who are trained in plastic waste management.
Peter remarks, “I have a big dream, a long term dream and it is to make Gulu city a model city when it comes to plastic waste management.”
Healing work places
Northern Uganda underwent a long period of war from the 80s till the early 2000s and was characterised by lots of death. It has left an entire generation of traumatised people, especially youth. So Takataka Plastics created a workplace for their employment and gave them a space to heal themselves. Peter co-founded another organisation Hashtag Gulu which works with street-connected youth. Several displaced youths are employed and are offered a 12-week course on trauma counselling with partners like the Bible Society of Uganda.
Uganda does not have Computerised Numerical Control (CNC) machines.So if a new design comes up (for instance— making the blades for the shredders), it has to be manufactured in Turkey or the USA and then it is sent back to Uganda. The process is long and arduous. Takataka Plastics is in the process of lobbying people to donate such machines.
Further, heavy taxation poses yet another challenge. The government treats social enterprises just like it treats highly profitable private companies, which is troublesome. Peter states: “We’ve been having talks with different government persons trying to convince them that a social enterprise is way different from other private companies. We’re trying to convince them to relax some of the taxations on social enterprises like ours and many other social enterprises in Uganda. I mean, most of them have died because of such treatment.”
A green outlook on life
Takataka plastics aims at sensitising people to be more mindful of Mother Nature. It stresses upon people to ‘refuse or reduce’ the plastic, for ultimately we only have to bear its repercussions. We have to look for alternatives for plastic.
When asked — Wouldn’t reducing the plastic be a conflict of interest for them? — Peter replied, “Our two key aspects are the people and the planet.” Takataka Plastics is more of a social and environmental enterprise than an economic one. People need to come together to achieve the larger ultimate goal—to reduce plastic use.
Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.