In this no holds-barred interview with wastesmart.org in March 2017, Prof. MKC Sridhar, an Indian scholar whose love affair with Nigeria started in 1977 and Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan bares his mind on “Prospects of waste management in Nigeria”. Below is the first part of the full transcript of the fifty-five minutes interview.
What is waste?
Prof: Anything that we do not normally use becomes a waste. Again, there is nothing like waste; you create waste. “Nothing like waste” means suppose you don’t use something, suppose I have two phones but I don’t have to use both at a time so I keep one aside; the unused one is or soon becomes a waste. Waste is a resource which is in a place where it is not being used. Waste is a resource which is not properly used or not used inter-time. In Russian dictionaries, there is not a word like waste. In Russia, it is often said that “Waste means a material kept aside for future use.” So, nothing is particularly a waste.
In Russian dictionaries, there is not a word like “waste”.
How do we reconcile “Nothing is particularly a waste” with people’s attitude to discard resources rather than preserve them for future use?
Prof: Lack of a recycle value plays a role (in that), so does socioeconomic background. A high income person, a medium income person and a low income person think in different ways. The high income person will think, “No, it is not good, it is not good looking, it is properly not working, so, let me discard it. A medium income person will say, “Let me use it a bit more before changing it later”. A low income person is helpless; ultimately, by the time he disposes of it, it is almost degraded or degenerated so it cannot be reused.
Socioeconomic status also dictates what we get when we talk about wastes. And accordingly, the amount of wastes they produce also defers. High income earners normally produce more wastes. Suppose you buy a loaf of bread and leave it for two or more days, the high income earner looks and realizes it is past its expiry date, he throws it away. A medium income earner would probably put it in the fridge, and use it for another two or more days. So you can see the variation in thinking due to economic status.
What would you say are the major challenges to waste management in Nigeria?
Prof: Do we know much about waste? Do administrators and government officials really know what they are talking about, about what kind of waste they are talking about? Do they have any idea how much waste we produce, the nature of wastes? And do they know whether or not the money they spend relate to the amount of waste we are producing?
Basically, we don’t have a database for waste. That’s our major problem. Ask any government official form the ministries of Environment, LAWMA, OYSWMA etc. LAWMA is slightly better; they will be able to give you some figures. But anywhere else in the States, they don’t have any idea (on exactly how much wastes Nigeria or each State produces). They quote from somewhere, like the European figure or American figure and then say, “We are producing according to so and so, this is the amount”. But why do you want to depend on somebody else, why can’t we generate our own data? A database is number one.
Basically, we don’t have a database for waste.
What is the import of “database” in waste management?
Prof: When you identify a problem (and its scale), solutions can be sought; otherwise, you are looking for something blindly. You are imaging that we are producing this amount of waste, the kind of waste, and then, you are trying to plan something which rarely can be correct. If you know how much waste you are producing, if you know the kind of waste you are producing, then the next step will be how do you manage them.
Now, for example in Nigeria today, we have six ecological zones starting from Kastina, Sokoto, that part, Maiduguri, come down, Kano, Kaduna, then Ilorin, the Middlebelt. Then come down to South, go down to South-South. When you look at the nature of the waste they (these zones) are producing, it is different. So you are planning your thinking and type of equipment and other things you need should be geared towards that. But nothing like that, it is only blind.
When you identify a problem (and its scale), solutions can be sought; otherwise, you are looking for something blindly.
And most of the time also, when there is no data, we are governed by the consultants, so called consultants that are coming from very little experience. Some of the consultants have no knowledge of Nigeria or Nigerian wastes. They are coming Israel, Europe, France. They should spend some time in the country and then they would know what exactly they are talking about.
We had a training workshop a while ago in Ibadan with some instructors from Germany. They started to talk about what they saw in Germany, then, all the participants say, “Sorry, we don’t agree with you.” That was what happened then. Then they were a bit embarrassed. Same thing happened in Abuja, the group came from Britain. They are Nigerians from Britain but when they came, they started talking about British experience. The same thing happened, all the participants said, “Sorry, this is not correct.” This is what is happening in Nigeria today. Nigeria has different types of wastes and different types of management problems. These people don’t know the realities on the ground.
How about wastes from establishments such as poultry farms?
Prof: Livestock waste is a very serious one. Until recently, poultry waste was dumped on the road and highways. They collect these wastes in the bags and then dump them on the roadside, it was then up to the people to decide what they want to do with it. But now, there is a value for that poultry waste. It was not so before. Now, when you want to take poultry wastes, they are likely to ask you “How much will you pay us?” And then brewery waste. Nigerian breweries in Ibadan at one time dumped its waste on the roadside as a big heap. Back then, we used to wonder why they did that? They said there were no markets for the wastes. That they could not send or transport it somewhere else, and they could not sell it, what were they to do with it? And since there were no places in the premises to keep them, they resorted to dumping the wastes on the highway.
Waste tends to diminish in economic value when you factor in the cost of transportation. That kind of variation appears severally and most be given good consideration.
Actually, we were trying to do some experiments some years ago involving brewery waste and the practice was you want take as much as you want for free but then, transporting from the premises where they dump the wastes to our UI campus caused us a lot of money. Waste tends to diminish in economic value when you factor in the cost of transportation. That kind of variation appears severally and most be given good consideration.
If you were in Bodija market (Ibadan) a while ago, you could have seen a big heap of cow dung, now, you don’t see that dump. When we started working there, it was a big mountain people always had to climb and all the workers there they had no toilet, they used to go there to defecate on top of it. Later, one of the governors saw clearly and though we tried to recycle to some extent, we could not recycle everything. You can see that waste is like that, most the livestock waste is not properly used.
Look at UI; they sweep, they collect all the things and dump it in one corner and somebody will come and collect. Farms, poultry farms, some big farms are now trying to keep up and then, put back on the farm after some time. At least, they try to do something but it (their method) is not scientific. What they do is collect all the waste, put it somewhere for a few months, then, dump it on the farm. They think that by the time they are getting it back, it would have become manure. But if they want to do it right way, they are to collect it, decompose it to compost, then, put it on the farm, that way, it can go anywhere in the country.
What are the prospects in waste management that can be maximized?
Prof: The problem in Nigeria is this that every industry and every livestock producer is only aiming at profit, what you can gain; so when it comes to the waste management, they think that they are spending money, so their mental make-up is not all about waste. What they can get for selling my goods is what they are aiming at. But it should not be like that. They are to also think about their involvement and their commitment to society. They should also plan about what do they do with the waste. That is what environmental impact assessment is basically about; when you identify a problem, you are also asking what you can do to mitigate the likely effects of the problem. How do you manage them? What kind of thing should we factor into their planning? Everybody should think in that direction; I’m producing and making all that money, and I’m also producing waste, what do I do with the waste?
Everybody should think in that direction; I’m producing and making all that money, and I’m also producing waste, what do I do with the waste?
Waste recycling yields value, not just in monetary terms, but in social terms and health-wise. Assuming I am interested in the social benefits but also do not want to run at a loss, that’s if I can avoid that. Is waste recycling profitable? Can we encourage investors to invest in waste management?
Prof: Actually, it is a big problem. But the real question is “How much time will you give to make profit?” They want to have it now. It will not work, never. Every business has its life span. In the recycling business, until you develop the composting plan- if you want to produce compost from city waste, organic waste, normally three to four years is required to make profit from whatever your investment. Perhaps out of curiosity, Prof. Osuntogun (former Vice Chancellor, OAU) asked me pointblank, “How much time will it take to pay back and get to profitability?” When he and I sat in his office to work that out, we arrived at three to four years. You also need to consider the type of technology you’re using, the type of employment you’re creating and other benefits. But we always tend to look at profit only in Naira value. They want quick returns. But ideally, when you say profit, you’re not looking at money in naira only but other benefits as well, social benefits, public health benefits etc. There’s also a need to educate them.
But ideally, when you say profit, you’re not looking at money in naira only but other benefits as well, social benefits, public health benefits etc.
With experts like you in the system, can we have structures where we more specifically educate prospective investors so as to change the hasty orientation of wanting to get in and cash out immediately? Do we have systems where investors are trained as to what to expect? Can we have it?
Prof: We should. We know that in the whole world, China is leading in recycling. There are millionaires, billionaires from recycling outfits. Recently I read a magazine in Nigeria. There are about ten millionaires in Nigeria who also became millionaires through waste recycling activities. So it’s possible but we have to plan properly to achieve that. The lowest paid man is the one who is struggling hard and toiling while the big man in Abuja collects all the money. The hierarchy tends to take away other benefits.
There is a model I am trying to promote called the COMPETING DEMAND MODEL. Suppose I open a kiosk here and say anybody that has old newspapers or PET bottles, please bring to me; every kilo you bring to me, I will pay you some amount. By tomorrow old newspapers, PET bottles etc. will not look like wastes because people will start attaching direct value to them. Like that if individuals or NGOs or groups or even government bodies they can set up that kind of arrangement, almost like 80-90% of waste will disappear. That is the model I just developed and sent it to the World Resources Forum in Switzerland. The board appreciated it and has accepted to publish it in a book.
We know that in the whole world, China is leading in recycle. There are millionaires, billionaires from recycling outfits.
In Nigeria, there has been lot of changes over the years. During Gowon’s time, everybody was “happy”, there was so much money flowing, people were lavish. When you looked in dustbins those days, a lot of bottles, peak milk, tins, everything was going down. By the time Babangida came in, what happened? SAP came in, then plastic technology was coming to the market so people started looking elsewhere, turning to plastic bottles, plastic materials, basic metal products were gradually disappearing. So, naturally, the waste content of metals also reduced. But by the time Abacha came in, his tenure was plagued with a lot of economic problems so people started looking inwards, saving from what they called waste. The concept of reuse or recycling became more prominent during the Abacha regime. So you see, even though we often neglect this, government plays a major role in waste generation and management.
There is a model I am trying to promote called the COMPETING DEMAND MODEL.
Here’s another recent observation. Many years back, dumping of scrap metals like abandoned cars on highways was rife. But now you see some people going around with carts on the highway, collecting nails, small sheet of metals, aluminum, anything they find they pick, and off they go with it. In the afternoon when you stand at the Ibadan-Lagos expressway, you see different truckloads filled with scrap metals. Where are they going? To recycling facilities who buy scrap metals and recycle them. There are many such facilities in the Ikorodu axis.
So you see, in all these garbage (wastes), there are opportunities, but we are not yet taking enough of those opportunities; that’s our major problem. And who is to do it? That was what I called DRIVERS in the model I gave. Government is one, policy is one, and then NGOs, individuals. Suppose I have no job, what to do rather than begging people for livelihood? I can key into any area of opportunity in the recycling chain; that’s the kind of thing we need to promote. How do we promote that? By minimizing obstacles and encouraging public participation. For example, many youths have no access to seed capital. If I need to buy waste ten PET bottles for N2 each, I need an initial capital to kick off.
Out of ten bottles he’s buying, he could be making #30 per bottle on recycling but until then, he needs something to get started. We need to encourage banks, micro-finance banks to give loans and other financial assistance for these initiatives. If you want to build a house, you’ll get a loan from the bank. If you want to buy a car, they are ready. They should not say no to start-ups. If these start-ups (under small and medium scale enterprises) can get soft loans, that will solve a lot of problems.
For a young school leaver or a fresh graduate, what are the requisite skills needed go into waste management and recycling?
Prof: The skills can be at different levels. If somebody hasn’t gone to primary school, he has no skills. The best thing for him is to go to school or some recycling village to learn. But for a person who is a little more advanced, may be a high school leaver, he can collect materials and process partially. Processing here is not a big deal. He can wash and clean. Between a plastic bottle that is dirty and the one which is clean, definitely the clean bottle will fetch more money. You can put up a small washing machine like a car wash, and collect these materials and then clean very well to sell. The industries want clean materials.
The industry would prefer that other man to someone who is just collecting them (bottles). Slightly more advanced to this is a graduate who has no job. He can fabricate or buy a machine. Plastic for example, can be ground into pieces (granular form). Simple technology; put your plastic wastes in a grinding machine and make into simple pellets. It costs a little money but not so much. So a fresh graduate can fabricate his own machine. There are even some people who haven’t gone to college. They buy some of the equipment from plastic and glass industries to refurbish them. They buy it and they will use their own knowledge to put it to use. A ready mind, access to the right trainings and ability to take the initiative come highly recommended.
When I looked at him, I said “This is what we need.” That was where we started with him. We groomed him and then gained some funding and asked him to fabricate machines.
When we initially started plastic recycling, I met someone who was working in his own house in a small village on the outskirts of Ibadan. I came to know about him through a student who made mention of him in his thesis. I went there to meet the man too and he was very happy. Whenever we go to propagate this message, he used to be with us and on some of UNICEF and other training workshops. He was with us until he died a few years ago. But he was doing wonderfully well. Our interactions also helped him in improving his skills for better quality. At one time, people were complaining about pure water nylon. They threw sachets of water away upon drinking up the content. This man researched into this and he recycled (pure water sachets) using the refurbished machines. I still have photographs. When I looked at him, I said “This is what we need.” That was where we started with him. We groomed him and then gained some funding and asked him to fabricate machines. We took him to a recycling plant in Akure to fabricate machines. He was a practical engineer even though he didn’t study engineering, but the knowledge and skills were there.
Our interactions also helped him in improving his skills for better quality.
Still, when you go to higher levels, there are people working with Dangote and some of these top companies, who are well trained and highly experienced. In fact, now we are engaging an experienced engineer in Uturu. Uturu got imported fertilizer machines from South Korea for about $100 million or so. But they couldn’t get engineers from South Korea because there was Ebola crisis at that time. The machines were lying idle then until someone recommended us to them. When they came to us, we got engineers that were really proficient because we didn’t want to use roadside engineers.
We engaged the engineers, told them what we wanted and now they are ready for the situation. They re-fabricated some of the machines and for some others, they were refurbished. Some of the machines they bought were not good. The project went on. All the machines are now on ground. But we don’t have to go to that level; we can locally fabricate these machines using local materials and skills, with little money.
Can you share some of your field experiences with us?
Prof: Then I discussed this idea with some rich folks who had the means, about a composting plant like the one at Aleshinloye Market where market wastes can easily be processed. At the time, the wife of the man was into waste collection in Eastern Nigeria. She was a contractor in charge of waste collection in Anambra and Owerri. She and a team came and toured the plant at Aleshinloye. They said the plant was too small plant for what they had in mind, that they wanted to invest millions.
We explained to them that the plant at Aleshinloye market was not proposed for something worth millions since the status of the areas the plant would be servicing was low compared to other bigger plants, and that the new plant could be scaled up if need be. These people would hear none of that, so they went ahead with their grandiose plan. They went ahead to big import machines from China. Till today, nothing is happening in Owerri. We went and checked out the machines, the important machines were lying fallow there. You see it seems that we have not conditioned our minds to tap into the technology that is available locally.
They went ahead to big import machines from China. Till today, nothing is happening in Owerri, they only put up a fence around the waste heaps.
Another example is the Federal Ministry of Environment. Some 4-5 years ago, they selected 14 States as pilot schemes. They imported plastic recycling plants from China again, plastic recycling plants. They did not know where to keep them (the machines) so they dumped them at various dump sites. I personally visited with my colleague Dr. Hammed Taiwo, three of them (the facilities); one in Sango Ota, one in Ilorin and one in Kaduna. When you look at that, people who imported these machines went through some contractors, bought the equipments but no one seems to know the skills in fixing them and operating them. What do we do? The Federal Government went on to announce that they had provided 14 pilot schemes for plastic recycling in 14 States. Nothing is happening. Recently, our team rehabilitated the one in Ilorin. The Federal Ministry of Environment came and wanted us to do a training programme. We organized the programme and they just came all the way from Abuja and witnessed it. They were happy with a report, nothing more after that.
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