SEATTLE, Washington — Almost 25% of Uganda’s population live below the global poverty line. In addition to poverty, Uganda is facing critical recycling issues. In Gulu, a city in Uganda, only 20% of its plastic waste is collected, and less than 5% is recycled. However, organizations like Takataka Plastics are implementing potential recycling solutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic by transforming plastic waste into face shields.
The Waste Issue in Uganda
In 2019, access to plastic waste importation to India and China abruptly ended due to newly enforced restrictions that prohibit Ugandan shipment of plastic waste for monetary value. After India issued a notice and China placed a ban on all delivered waste plastics from overseas, Uganda began burning and burying its polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.
However, PET flakes are challenging to process, have low recycling value and release greenhouse gases and dangerous carcinogens when burned.
Gulu’s nearest recycling center is six hours away in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. This distance makes it challenging to carry waste and continue recycling efforts. Plastic litter escalates the issue further because it blocks drains and produces flooding, which creates breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying malaria. Mismanaged plastic waste can also damage crops by saturating soil or harming the cattle when ingested.
Plastic Waste and Poverty
The machines that convert PET plastic into clothing fibers or new plastic bottles are unaffordable. Moreover, despite Uganda’s laws regarding plastic usage and the ban on plastic bags, Uganda’s government runs under low capacity and find it challenging to enforce strict recycling regulations.
Furthermore, the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) regime, led by Joseph Kony, has added to Uganda’s prevalent issues of plastic waste and poverty. In 1987, the LRA waged a violent war against the Ugandan government, and as a part of its tactics, abducted children and women to work as child soldiers or slaves for the LRA fighters. In 2019, 46.5% of Uganda’s population was under 14 years of age, leaving behind a large percentage of vulnerable youth on the streets.
Not to mention, Uganda’s healthcare system is underfunded and lacks essential resources, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). Hence, with the many COVID-19 patients in hospitals, Ugandan nurses and doctors are working with no PPE. Most Ugandan healthcare workers have no face shields or any other protective equipment to fight the global pandemic, and N95 respirators are almost unobtainable in Uganda.
Takataka Plastics’ Solution
In Swahili, Takataka means “trash” or “litter.” The founders of Takataka Plastics, Paige Balcom and Peter Okwoko, are recycling waste into something valuable to Uganda’s local communities. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the organization is focusing its resources to transform plastic waste into face shields. The recycled face shields are then either donated to Ugandan public hospitals or sold at a low price to local non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, the founders started to manufacture the low-cost protective face shields by shredding plastic, melting it and shaping it into the high-demand products that would protect the lives of essential healthcare workers. Balcom and Okwoko built machines that specialize in PET plastic and are based on open-source designs that are easy to replicate and fix in case of malfunctions.
Moreover, the pair designed the machines to work efficiently with the locally available material, from hospitals’ plastic drip bags to any other accumulated waste restaurants collect in their bins and trash cans. By using modern polymer processing technology, Takataka Plastics is able to produce $1 single-use or $2.70 reusable face shields.
As of June 23, the organization was able to produce 2,128 face shields, with 1,159 shields donated to local hospitals facing severe medical equipment shortages.
Work Opportunities for Uganda’s Homeless Youth
Takataka Plastics is also employing local homeless youth, providing the youths with essential work and income in a time of uncertainty. The organization currently has 14 full-time staff workers, six of whom were homeless youths.
Takataka Plastics provides victims of the LRA, its trauma or any other form of human trafficking with work, hot meals and a safe place to sleep. This initiative is primarily funded by the University of California, Berkeley’s grants, such as the 2018 Big Ideas competition and 2019 Scaling Up Big Ideas contest, as well as donations from the organization’s GoFundMe account.
Additionally, Takataka Plastics provides the once homeless youths with weekly trauma counseling to aid them through the recovery process and provide them with an opportunity to better their living conditions and mental health.
How Takataka Plastics Began
Paige Balcom and Peter Okwoko founded Takataka Plastics in 2018. Currently, Balcom is in the process of obtaining her Ph.D. degree in mechanical and development engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2016, Balcom visited Uganda as a Fulbright grant researcher. While she was testing aquaponics, her short stay made her fall in love with Uganda and its people, many of whom were victims of the LRA. A month later, she became a Ph.D. student and focused on development engineering, heat transfer and improving the lives of those living in developing countries. Balcom appeared on Shark Tank and was awarded various graduate fellowships, some of which are from the University of California, Berkeley, the National Science Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Once settled in Uganda, Balcom met Okwoko, a graduate of the Innovative Communication Technologies and Entrepreneurship program at Denmark’s Aalborg University and a founder of AfriGreen Sustain and Hashtag Gulu. AfriGreen Sustain specializes in waste management in Gulu, while Hashtag Gulu is a nonprofit organization aiding homeless youth in Gulu.
From there, the pair embarked on a journey of transforming Uganda’s overwhelming amount of plastic waste into valuable products for Uganda’s local communities.
Before Takataka Plastics emerged as one of the leaders in PPE production in Uganda, it built prototype machines that construct wall tiles out of recycled plastic. Unlike ceramic tiles, plastic tiles are lightweight and difficult to break. The practice became popular across the country, and they began to sell it to various contractors and hardware shops.
The Future of Takataka Plastics
Takataka Plastics has many innovative plans for the future, and the face shields are only the beginning. Other plastic recycling industries (PRIs) in Uganda are also creating positive change similar to Takataka Plastics’ initiatives. With a united front and vision, these humanitarian efforts are sure to increase recycling in Uganda and better Ugandans’ living conditions.
To increase its efficiency, the founders of Takataka Plastics plan to ship a machine from overseas in the near future, which will greatly cut the cost of face shield production. As a result, the organization would be able to lower its price even further and increase their donations to match hospitals’ increasing demand for protective gear.
Takataka Plastics is also considering expanding into other towns and cities to build low-cost and effective recycling facilities that do not require waste import or export. Because Takataka Plastics proved to be self-sustainable and self-sufficient in Gulu, the founders want to take their business model and operations across East Africa. They also want to offer others the opportunity to purchase constructed machines or license.
Takataka Plastics is not only a technological startup that produces high-quality medical equipment by transforming plastic waste into face shields; it also saves the lives of essential, front-line healthcare workers. Paige Balcom and Peter Okwoko’s endeavors prove that entrepreneurship, philanthropy and engineering can go hand-in-hand in making a positive difference in the lives of many.