Burundi’s plastic bottle recycling still has some way to go

Photo from www.ibihe.org. Used with permission

This article was republished by Global Voices under a partnership agreement with www.ibihe.org.net. The original article can be found here on their website.

More than three weeks have passed since reusing plastic bottles and containers were banned in Burundi, yet Burundian business policies on bottle recovery are practically non-existent. Some containers are reused in non-compliance with hygiene standards, while others are strewn across the ground, thus endangering public health and the environment alike.

Every day, with a bag in hand, bottle collector Thierry Nahimana goes round Nyakabiga's stores in the Mukaza Commune of Burundi’s economic capital, Bujumbura, looking to buy MERU Investments bottles that shopkeepers have kept. MERU Investments is a manufacturer of strong alcoholic beverages.

There is much to be done in bottle collection, Ever since stores discovered they could resell MERU-branded bottles, attitudes have changed. More young people have  taken an interest and are competing to collect these bottles. Stores offer their products to those first on the scene or the highest bidders, should their paths cross. Thierry says:

J'achète aujourd'hui cette bouteille parfois à 400 FBu (0,192 dollars USD) et je la revends à 500 FBu (0,2401 dollars USD) à l'entreprise MERU. Avant que la demande en bouteilles de marque MERU grandisse, leurs prix variaient entre 300 et 350 FBu (0,144 et 0,168 dollar USD)

Today, I bought this bottle that often costs BIF 400 (USD 0.192) and sold it to MERU for BIF 500 (USD 0.2401). Before the rise in demand for MERU bottles, they cost between BIF 300 and 350 (USD 0.144 and 0.168).
Every day, there is an ever-increasing demand for MERU bottles. In the country’s interior, bottle collection is particularly common in the Rumonge Province (located in southeast Burundi, 72 km from the former capital, Bujumbura). According to another bottle collector, Jean Marie, bottle prices vary between BIF 200 and 250 (USD 0.096 and 0.12). He states:

Pour tirer profit de cette collecte, je collecte environ 1000 bouteilles avant de descendre sur Bujumbura les revendre. Chez nous à Rumonge, les gens viennent parfois me les vendre à la maison. Les bouteilles de marque MERU ne jonchent pas le sol comme les bouteilles des autres marques de boissons.

To make a profit from this collection, I collect around 1000 bottles before going to Bujumbura to sell them. Sometimes, people come to sell them to me at home in Rumonge. Unlike bottles from other drinks brands, MERU bottles are not strewn across the ground here.

At the Ngagara bottle market (located in the city of Bujumbura), where MERU Investments beverages are manufactured, Thierry Nahimana also admitted to having met other MERU bottle sellers from provinces like Muramvya.

According to Nahimana, who has worked for MERU Investments, this company recycles its bottles before reusing them.

Aside from trading, MERU has also put an effective bottle management policy in place, where it buys its bottles from customers through collectors. This policy appears to elude many Burundian businesses.

In a country that has the highest unemployment rate in the East African community, young people appear to be the ones benefiting here.

Disposing of waste everywhere: a common practice in Burundi

In addition to this, Burundian citizens continue to dispose of plastic bottles and containers from other brands everywhere, especially in gutters.

Jean Noël, who this newspaper met in Bwiza, a working-class neighborhood within the Mukaza Commune of Bujumbura Mairie Province, threw away a plastic container in a nearby area. For him, the lack of public trash cans justified his actions. This is a common practice in Bujumbura and the province itself.

Due to a lack of manufacturer recycling policies, other plastic containers are strewn across the ground here.

In October 2020, the Ministry of Environment announced that anyone littering plastic waste would be fined BIF 2,000 to 5,000 (USD 0.9602 to 2.4006). Corporate body fines would also vary from BIF 50,000 to 100,000 (USD 24.0059 to 48.0118).

Thanks to these measures, the state, private companies, and non-governmental organizations have all provided trash cans in Bujumbura city center. However, this has not prevented Burundian citizens from disposing of plastic bottles and containers in its gutters.

What’s more, even though plastic packaging takes between 100 and 400 years to biodegrade, these measures are yet to be enforced. According to environmental expert, Célestin Nkunzimana:

Il faudrait une conscientisation de masse sur la gestion des bouteilles ou flacons en plastique.

There should be mass-awareness on plastic bottle and container management.

Public trash cans are still a provincial rarity

Public trash cans are still a rarity within the remote neighborhoods of this country’s provinces. Throughout the country, gutters are used as public trash cans, thus becoming blocked by all sorts of solid waste.

The impact of this is evident. Whenever there are periods of intense rainfall, floods are a common occurrence in central Bujumbura Mairie Province. Roads are subsequently inaccessible for pedestrians and vehicles alike.

For Nkunzimana:

Ces inondations sont la conséquence des caniveaux évacuant les eaux des pluies bouchées par toutes sortes de déchets. Ces eaux doivent alors se trouver un chemin si leurs chemins, les caniveaux, sont bouchés.

These floods are a direct consequence of the gutters, which carry away rainwater, being blocked by all sorts of waste. This water must find another route if its original routes, that’s to say the gutters, are blocked.

If this plastic waste is washed away by erosion, it will ultimately end up in Lake Tanganyika. Plastic waste is strewn across the beaches around this lake. For instance, there is a considerable accumulation of plastic waste in Kumase, Ngagara (not far from Lake Tanganyika).

According to the World Bank, the world generates 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste each year. This figure is expected to reach 3.4 billion tons by 2050. In fact, plastic waste accounts for around 51 of the 630 tons of waste generated in Bujumbura Mairie Province every day. However, its management is still of concern today.

In 2018, former president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, issued a decree banning the manufacture, import, storage, sale and use of all plastic bags and other packaging. Article 7 of this decree stipulated that:

Les déchets en plastiques, y compris les bouteilles et les flacons en plastiques sont retournés chez les fournisseurs qui en assurent le stockage, le recyclage ou la valorisation.

All plastic waste, including plastic bottles and containers be returned to the supplier for their storage, recycling, or reuse.

However, suppliers do not recover these waste plastic products. They are instead reused in the packaging of liquid products, like palm and cottonseed oil, or juices from other retailers.

Is recovery packaging a cause of serious illness?

According to the Director General of the Burundi Bureau of Standardization and Quality Control (BBN), Severin Sindayikengera:

Si on conserve l'huile de palme dans les flacons de récupération pendant toute une semaine, ce produit tombe en désuétude, parce que ces flacons ne sont pas nettoyés selon les règles d'hygiène.

If palm oil is stored in these recovery containers for a week, this product will go out of date, since these containers are not cleaned in accordance with hygiene standards.

He also said that plastic containers pose certain risks for consumers, depending on the product type. These risks go as far as to include serious illnesses, like cancer.

According to food safety expert, Ir. Désiré Rudaragi:

Les familles qui consomment les produits empaquetés dans les emballages incapables tombent souvent malades. Elles passent ainsi le temps qu'elles nécessitent au travail, à l'hôpital et utilisent les fonds familiaux aux soins médicaux, etc. Somme toute, leurs économies vont decrescendo.

Families who consume products stored in packaging not fit for purpose often fall ill. They thereby spend their time required at work, in hospital. They use family funds for medical treatment, thus gradually using up their savings.

On February 26, 2023, a country-wide ban was imposed on any reuse of recovered packaging. A six-month deadline was granted for packaging modifications. However, the attitudes of Burundian retailers, waiting till the last minute to take action, remain a major challenge.


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