Tunisian recyclers tackle mountains of waste

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Mghira (Tunisia) (AFP) – “When I see plastic, I see money,” says Tarek Masmoudi, owner of one of the few recycling companies in Tunisia, where a waste crisis threatens widespread social unrest.

Recycling is almost non-existent in this North African country which produces 2.6 million tonnes of waste each year.

About 85 percent of this waste ends up in landfills, while much of the rest ends up in informal landfills, according to Tunisian waste management expert Walim Merdaci.

But with many facilities close to the overflow and neighboring communities in arms, the crisis is already fueling tensions.

In November, a man died when security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters demanding the closure of a stinky landfill that they say has spread deadly diseases and health problems to their town of Agareb , near the second city of Sfax.

African Recycling employee feeds plastic waste shredder – much of the waste is collected on the streets by informal waste pickers FETHI BELAID AFP

This could be a worrying sign of things to come because, according to expert Wassim Chaabane, most of the 11 official landfills in the country are expected to close by the end of 2022.

This is forcing the authorities to scramble to find new sites.

In the capital Tunis, which has around 2.7 million inhabitants, the situation is particularly urgent.

The Bordj Chakir landfill, the largest in Tunisia, receives more than 3,000 tonnes of waste per day and is about to overflow.

From waste to wealth

But where others see a crisis, Masmoudi sees an opportunity.

Every day, a continuous stream of minivans and small trucks bring bales of plastic waste to its factory in Mghira, near Tunis, to be weighed, sorted and cut into fine chips for industrial use.

Much of it is picked up by hand in the streets and garbage cans of the capital by “barbechas”, informal waste pickers.

The African Recycling company in Masmoudi treats 6,000 tonnes of waste per year.

The 42-year-old directly employs around 60 people, many of them women, and indirectly provides work for around 200, which is no small feat in a country suffering from 18 percent unemployment.

Fine recycled plastic chips are used by industry
Fine recycled plastic chips are used by industry FETHI BELAID AFP

Between four and seven percent of Tunisian waste is recycled, according to official figures.

But Masmoudi, standing near his sleek white 4×4, said the waste market is growing rapidly.

“Recycling is a sector where a lot remains to be done, but which could create jobs and wealth in Tunisia.

The situation is similar in neighboring Algeria, where experts say up to 60 percent of the household waste of the country’s 43 million people goes to unregulated landfills.

Samira Hamidi, a member of the semi-independent Algerian advisory body CNESE, says “less than seven percent of waste is recycled”.

Only 5,000 people are employed in the recycling sector in Algeria, according to official figures.

In Tunisia, after a decade of political paralysis since a 2011 revolution, Masmoudi says the waste management system reflects a lack of strategy and vision.

African Recycling directly employs around 60 people, many of them women, and indirectly provides work for around 200 people - no small feat in a country with 18 percent unemployment.
African Recycling directly employs around 60 people, many of them women, and indirectly provides work for around 200 people – no small feat in a country with 18 percent unemployment. FETHI BELAID AFP

Businesses like his cannot pick up the garbage directly, because “the municipalities own the garbage,” he said.

“The state pays 150 to 200 dinars ($ 52 to $ 70) per ton of waste landfilled. We are paying money to bury something worth a fortune.”

But setting up a sorting system could take years, according to Chaabane.

“The Tunisian waste management system is hopeless at all levels, but especially in terms of collection.

The national waste management agency recently admitted it was under-resourced.

To not have enough time

Merdaci, the other expert, says Tunisian authorities want to introduce a combination of mechanical and biological methods to treat waste, compact it and compost it while recovering methane, a gas that can be used as fuel.

But the first projects will take two years to start.

“Time is running out,” he said.

Merdaci called for “a tax to pay for waste management and make everyone pay for what they produce” as a way for municipalities to deal with waste.

A constant stream of minivans and small trucks arrive daily at African Recycling, whose owner says Tunisia's waste management system lacks strategy and vision
A constant stream of minivans and small trucks arrive daily at African Recycling, whose owner says Tunisia’s waste management system lacks strategy and vision FETHI BELAID AFP

Each Tunisian produces an average of 365 kilograms (804 pounds) of waste per year, but taxpayers pay no more than 28 cents for its management.

Chaabane says urgent solutions are needed, adding that incineration was “the best option for cities” if clean energy is used.

But that option wouldn’t be cheap, with the incinerators costing around $ 280 million each.

For Merdaci, the outlook is bleak.

“We have had 10 years of political instability, a decade without any decisions, problems with those who live near landfills and a lack of money. Success is zero.”

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