By Winnie Auma
For Lira City, which generates almost two tons of waste plastic bottles in a day, its management has proven to be a huge opportunity for the population that lives hand-to-mouth.
The dwellers, mostly vulnerable women, and the street kids are seen roaming throughout the streets and in backyards with polythene bags from early morning to late evening, collecting plastic bottles for sale at the waste collection center adjacent to the Lira Works Department. These plastics are later transported to Coca-Cola’s plastic bottle recycling plant in Kampala.
Although the rate of collecting the plastics picked up after the establishment of the waste for cash program was introduced in Lira City, Isaac Ojok, 41, a resident of Starch Factory in the current Adyel ward in Lira City West, says he has been in the business of collecting and selling plastic bottles for the last 10 years. He would collect and sell each plastic bottle for 100 shillings to individuals who use them to buy fuel, paraffin, or cooking oil.
But as time went on, factories like Mukwano started showing interest in buying plastic bottles, thus the increase in demand. Now, Ojok makes about 50,000 shillings on a weekly basis from selling a kilogram of bottles for Shs 500, a business he is proud to own.
Ojok did not only buy a small piece of land and build a semi-permanent house but also marry the mother of his two children using the proceeds from the business. He is also able to support his children’s education using the same method.
Ojok’s wife, Pasca Akullu, 35, also recently joined the business.
Akullu says the business has helped keep her occupied and able to contribute to the development of the family, unlike in the past when she entirely relied on her husband.
However, Ojok is disappointed by the fact that most people think whoever is collecting and selling plastic bottles lives on the street, which is discouraging because he has made a life out of it.
Similarly, Yubentino Omara, 78, a widower from Alango Sub County in Otuke District, said he resorted to the business after he felt sick years ago, which rendered him unable to do casual jobs but he needed to survive.
Omara, who used to work as a guard in homes and some factories, said that due to his age, he had to look for an alternative source of income since he wasn’t strong enough like in his youthful days, adding that the money he earns from selling plastic bottles has enabled him to buy food and support some relatives living with him.
Omara, who sells plastic bottles near the Rhino Oil Petrol Station in Lira City, says he gets the bottles from restaurants, bars, and shops, and most of his customers are those who buy fuel or paraffin in small quantities.
Ivan Okello, a 22-year-old boy from Abako Sub County in Alebtong District, said he dropped out of school in P.4 after the death of his parents, and since there was no viable job he could do there, he moved to Lira at Teso Bar in Adyel Ward, where he now resides.
He says he makes about 5,000 shs a day by selling plastic bottles and empty boxes, from which he is able to buy food and pay his rent—something he says has helped him survive in the city.
Martin Odur, the Chairperson of Lango Ghetto Youth, an association for the children living on the street, said most of them make a living through the sale of scraps like plastic bottles and metals, adding that the money helps them buy food.
He however says some of them end up collecting items still being used by the owners, like charcoal stoves and metals, and therefore end up being criminals.
For this, Odur wants well-wishers and non-governmental organizations to help decongest the streets by engaging them in small businesses like managing garbage and slashing in the streets, or even sending some to school.
Odur says, “Some of these children want to study, but there are no people to pay their school fees.”
Last year, 48 of them were offered scholarships at Lango Quran Primary School, and none have dropped out, which shows their commitment.
Meanwhile, Isaac Jackson Awio, the proprietor of Awio Scrap Dealer, the biggest scrap dealing company in Lira City, has managed to employ 20 less privileged people through his love for plastic. The people are employed to collect, weigh, and transport the plastics to the storage unit.
Awio started the business in 2017 with the hope of ridding Lira of its solid waste management challenges. At Awio Scrap Dealers, all kinds of scraps, including plastic bottles, plastic tins or Jerry cans, card boxes, and metals, are bought at different prices: 500 for a kgm of any kind of plastic, 300 and 1,500 for a kg of card boxes and metals, respectively.
His aim was to find a single place to store the plastic as a way of preserving the environment because plastic is a major cause of soil infertility, which results in low crop yields and famine.
Leonard Otika, the Lira City Environmental Officer, said the street kids collecting plastic bottles have greatly contributed to the cleanliness of the city because most of the bottles that used to end up in drainage are now collected, adding that it has also helped in environmental conservation.
Lira City authorities should be grateful that the plastic waste collection is not only contributing to promoting an environmentally healthy city but has also helped cut the cost of garbage collection for the vulnerable and self-employed poor dwellers.
In November 2022, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) in close partnership with the Northern Uganda Media Club mentored and supported several journalists across the region to report on climate change, biodiversity and environment.