It's reaping cash and cleaning the environment

No one really likes to talk about rubbish, but here's some rubbish news from Kiribati the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) would like to share. Once a source of bad publicity and an eyesore to the beautiful Kiribati environment, discarded beer and soft drink cans, bottles and other solid waste problems are now being effectively addressed.

These 'rubbish' are being turned into a viable sustainable business venture that is cleaning the Kiribati environment while contributing to the economy.

The project that has contributed to this progress is called Kaoki Mange (translation: Return the Rubbish). The Kaoki Mange Waste Recycling Facility is an NGO/private sector-run operation set up by the Foundation of the Peoples of the South Pacific-Kiribati (FSPK) in 2002.

Working with the Kiribati government, and with the support of UNDP and about 10 other aid donors, the Kaoki Mange facility is close to achieving its goal-weaning off the waste recycling operation to a private company which will run it as a business and make money while ensuring the cans, batteries and other solid waste materials are recycled in a sustainable manner. Money will be made by keeping the environment clean.

While they started off with the help of donor funds, the Kaoki Mange facility is now able to live on its own off the money it raises from the collection and sale of cans, and actually make a profit at the same time.

This is how it works. In December 2004, the Kiribati government passed the Special Funds (Waste Materials Recovery) Act. The Act sets in place a special fund where deposits on cans, PET bottles, and batteries are put to entice their recovery for recycling.

When an importer brings beer cans from Australia (Kiribati imports about 5 million drink cans annually), they are required to pay a deposit of five cents for each can, which is transferred to the special fund set. The importer passes the cost to the consumer who pays the extra five cents when they buy their can of drink. However, if consumers return their used can, they are paid four cents for each returned can. Getting four cents back off the five extra cents they pay is an incentive to consumers to return the can.

The cans and PET bottles are returned to the Kaoki Mange collection points around South Tarawa. Kaoki Mange pays the collectors (which includes almost everyone from six year-old school children to 60-year-old shopkeepers) the four cents for each returned can.

In turn, Kaoki Mange goes to the special fund and is paid five cents for each can they have recovered, and paid out four cents for.

In this way Kaoki Mange makes one cent from every can or PET bottle they recover. But more importantly they get to keep the cans and PET bottles, which they make money from by crushing and exporting back to where it came from, mainly Australia.

Thus the Kaoki Mange has two streams of income. The one cent they get for each returned item, plus the money made from exporting the crushed cans and plastic bottles.

Now here's one for maths lovers. For the crushed cans, Kaoki Mange makes A$1300 from each ton they fill (approximately 64,000 crushed cans make up a ton). One container export holds 10 tons of crushed cans. A container is usually filled every two months. Kaoki Mange collects between 50,000 to 120,000 cans a week. You do the maths on how much they are bound to make. But remember, we haven't even talked about the batteries or PET bottles yet.

So money is being made, but importantly, the discarded cans, once an eyesore and vexing problem, is no longer lying on Kiribati's beautiful beaches in their millions, which was the situation before Kaoki Mange was put in place.

In fact today, as mentioned by Ross Terubea, editor of the Te Uekera newspaper, the stories are about the fierce competition between can collectors, including school children, who raid the beaches before they go to school.

Waiting around in Kiribati for a cheaper plane ticket in 2002 set Alice Leney, a long-time environmental activist, on his three-year journey with Kaoki Mange.

The situation with cans and other solid waste rubbish had provided a lot of bad publicity for Kiribati in the past. But Leney looked at the rubbish and saw an opportunity.

Working with FSP Kiribati they decided to promote the concept 'Rubbish is a Resource' and try to put in place a system to make it that way.

“Right from the start, there was an emphasis on how one could put in place a self-sustaining business,” says Leney, “otherwise no one's going to keep handing you money to collect and recycle rubbish.”

“It was not just about changing attitudes, but putting in place a system that worked for the Kiribati environment in every sense.”
Tenders were recently called for from the private sector for those wanting to take over the Kaoki Mange Materials Recovery Facility and pursue it as a viable and sustainable business.

Kaoki Mange representatives together with representatives from the Kiribati ministries of commerce, finance, environment and chamber of commerce are about to go over the tenders to chose who will take over the facility and run it as a private business.

The achievements of the solid waste management recycling project in Kiribati, and the successful way it has brought together an NGO, the government, aid donors, the people of Kiribati and the private sector, who are about to turn it into a sustainable profitable private business, is a model of partnership for sustainable development. It has encouraged the UNDP to look at ways to replicate the project in other Pacific countries with similar solid waste management issues.

Stanley Simpson is the Communications Associate with UNDP

Updated February 13, 2008

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