The Changing Face of Waste

The changing face of quality of life in Kenya determines the rate of urbanization and, by extension the volume and composition of solid waste in Kenya. Kenya’s urban population has grown from 5.4 million in 1999, to 12.5 million and 13.5 million in 2009 and 2019 respectively (source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics-KNBS). According to UN Habitate, by 2030, 50% of households in East Africa will be located in urban centers. With changes in lifestyles and settlements comes changes in waste composition. The average urban Kenyan household uses more packaged than fresh/organic goods and has generally lessened in size (number of members per household); Kenya’s censal growth rate had dipped to a new low of 2.2% with an average household size of 4.3-4.7 members. The table below illustrates the shift in composition in Nairobi’s municipal solid waste.
Waste category198519982015
Metals, Glass, Wood2.07%11.80%7.80%

The percentage volume of plastics in urban solid waste has grown steadily between 1999 and 2019, with a marked increase in both plastics and organic (putrescible) waste in neighborhoods of high population density (see table below).

Waste categoryHigh population density zone (Dandora & Kibera)Medium population density zone (Kariobangi south & BuruburuLow population density zone (Loresho)City center
Plastics 14.4% 12.9% 15.8% 13.5%
Papers 6.4% 9.3% 12.3% 22.6%
Putrescibles 64.2% 63.8% 56.5% 52.8%
LT12.4% 5.7% 4.2% 7.8%
In-organics 7.9% 8.3% 11.4% 3.3%

No comprehensive study has been carried out to determine the composition of plastics in our solid wastes. From our experience in sustainable waste management, we can point to an emerging waste stream that has grown right under our noses.

According to the 2019 census, out of Kenya’s 43,738,608 residents, 22,164,531 were women 44% of whom were aged between 14 – 49 years and probably experiencing their menses. An ordinary sanitary pad weighs 80 grams when dry about half of which is plastic and non-biodegradable.

Despite the ban on plastic bags, there has been a marked rise in disposable single-use plastics from plastic bottles, styrofoam packaging, and light electronics (mobile phone covers, headphones, etc) that compounds the problem further. The situation is made worse by Kenya’s poor recycling habits – up to 70% of recyclable plastics end up in a landfill, dumpsite open pit.

Discarded sanitary pads as an emerging waste stream came to our attention when Varet noticed the rise in demand for Low-Cost incinerators in girls’ secondary schools following amendments to the Basic Education Act (2013) in 2017 where the Government of Kenya would provide free sanitary pads to 3.7 million school girls.

Varet’s Low-cost incinerators are two stage combustion chambers that enhance pyrolisis (the decomposition of materials at elevated temperatures in an inert atmosphere) – the incinerator reduces all waste by 85% of its volume producing inert ash safe for landfilling.

As the face of waste continues to change with changes in lifestyle and increasing urbanization, entrepreneurs like Varet are tasked with innovating and bringing to market sustainable solutions to growing waste volumes.