Every now and then a nation comes up with a solution that shapes the future, a novel pilot scheme that draws the eyes of the world. In our planet of mounting rubbish, Istanbul has surely won that prize in the last year for its ‘clean up’ technology, which has got Turks clearing their homes and streets of plastic bottles and aluminium cans.
Turkey is the third largest producer of rubbish in Europe (after France and Germany) but the worst performer in recycling, meaning it has been piling up rubbish at the rate of 17,000 tonnes a day – or 6.2m tonnes a year. It’s a problem.
So last year the Istanbul City Council rolled out recycling vending machines across the country’s capital city. As Turks push empty bottles or cans into them, the machine adds credits to their public transport cards, and crushes the containers for recycling.
Within the first five months, the machines had collected more than 785,000 bottles and cans, and issued public fare credits of TL 34,000 or something over half a million Kenyan shillings. The council is adding more machines, declaring that the collections in the first months saved 12,000 litres of fuel and 41 tonnes of carbon emissions.
The collections have value too. An aluminium soda tin can be recycled and back in the store with new soda in it within six weeks, where new aluminium is expensive and not in infinite supply: so recyclers don’t only save monster rubbish tips.
Indeed, the commercial sense of recycling has moved some companies in Kenya to set up their own collection networks, perhaps most notably Chandaria Industries, with its nationwide collection of paper for its recycled toilet tissue.
But broader schemes that open up a little earning potential – enough maybe for dinner for a family – by collecting refuse from rivers and streets, and all the other places its presence is growing across Kenya, are in short supply.
The result in almost every village is growing piles of refuse that rats live in and the village lives around. Yet, all of that waste can be burned in filtered incinerators that produce no pollution to create electricity.
Of course, we are not without an administration that is trying to tackle our growing rubbish dump. With plastic bags long since banned, we are due to see single-use plastic bottles banned too from the middle of next year. And it is true that plastic bottles are some of the worst rubbish offenders – taking literally hundreds of years to break down naturally.
Indeed, the world’s move to PET bottled water and canned soda has created a planet piling up with rubbish, where banning is now becoming increasingly common: most recently by San Francisco International Airport, which banned bottled water sales on its premises last month.
The airport had already banned single use items, such as paper napkins and straws in its bid to become the first rubbish-free airport by 2021. But travellers through the airport were buying 10,000 bottles of water a day, and generating nearly 13,000 tonnes of waste a year, according to the airport’s spokesperson. So the bottle ban will remove huge pressure in saved waste treatment.
However, turning waste into money, turning collecting it into employment, turning the trash itself into raw materials, and clearing our streets and homes, there lies a next level of problem solving. And in that row of achievements sits the brilliance of the Turkish scheme, getting citizens to do the collection, and investing in on-the-spot crushing machines to make the volumes efficient.
It’s a plan that can only work when citizens have transport cards, which most in the world now do. In Kenya, the efforts to launch an electronic transport card foundered on the aversion by matatu touts and multiple competing cards. But even if it couldn’t be exactly replicated around holes in our payments infrastructure, we have M-Pesa, we have other ways.
Creating a two-end system of tiny financial rewards for unemployed rubbish collectors, and the technology to turn the waste into more value than the sums credited for collection, wouldn’t take a rocket scientist. And the wins then flow in from every direction.