Only 14% of the 400 million tonnes of plastic produced per year is collected for recycling. What role can business play in creating a cleaner environment? In an episode of the Hoffmann Institute’s Mission to Change podcast, Executive Director Katell Le Goulven speaks to Lorna Rutto from EcoPost about her journey to recycle waste plastic into eco-friendly plastic lumber. Here are three takeaways from their conversation.
On 2nd March 2022 the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) met in Nairobi, Kenya and agreed to forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024 to end plastic pollution. This agreement could not come soon enough as UNEP estimates that plastic production has risen exponentially in the last decades and now amounts to some 400 million tons per year– a figure set to double by 2040.
Kenyan based company, EcoPost, is trying not only to solve the plastic pollution crisis but also the deforestation crisis, which saw Kenyan Forest cover shrink to 6.3% of land area between 2001 and 2020. We spoke to Lorna Rutto about her journey leaving her well respected banking job to set up Ecopost, a company that recycles waste plastic into eco-friendly plastic lumber, creating sustainable jobs for people in marginalized communities while conserving the environment.
1. Mentorship is just as important as capital!
Funding is important in starting a new business, but so is mentorship. Lorna initially focused her efforts on raising capital so she could keep growing her business. When she entered the Cartier Women’s Initiative Impact Awards, she realised mentorship is just as important, if not more.
“While funding is very important, I got a lot of training, coaching, and even media and market exposure from winning a business plan competition. Being able to discuss my short-term and medium goals was really helpful.”*
2. More complex does not necessarily mean better
Lorna is not the only person to melt plastic and remold it into other objects. However, through research Lorna realised she was not interested in competing to obtain the most complex technology out there, nor did she need to. She just needed something that worked and served her purpose. She needed to create fencing that, 1. Didn’t rely on deforestation 2. Couldn’t be salvaged for scrap materials and 3. Helped remove waste from the environment.
“There were a lot of German recyclers who had machinery that was so complex, and they would produce all these complex materials. But I just needed an alternative to using trees, and a way to just remove all the trash from the market, from the streets and turn this into material that could be used as fencing posts. It’s a very basic process, something that will make people think about using an alternative solution to cutting down trees for making fence posts“*
3. Build an ecosystem. Don’t just think of your direct employees.
EcoPost has created 100 direct jobs, but more impressively over 12,000 indirect jobs. The direct jobs are based at the EcoPost factory turning melted plastic into objects. The indirect jobs are the youth and women who work collecting and preparing the plastic waste that is sold to EcoPost. To actively encourage and help these indirect workers EcoPost has set up a microcredit entrepreneur hub that loans startup kits, which include: a weighing scale, smartphone and shredding machine. This kit means the indirect workers that scavenge on the rubbish dumps can now collect, process, and sell the waste directly to EcoPost rather than just collecting and selling to a middleman for processing. The workers thus earn a lot more money than before, this extra money can be used to help support families as well as, paying off the cost of the kit to EcoPost and in some cases, acquiring more kits so they can process even more plastic waste.
4. Bonus business takeaway: Waste is not waste until it is wasted
From an early age Lorna learned the important lesson that nothing is waste, until you decide to waste it! It seems simple enough, yet we forget. In primary school Lorna would melt Coca Cola bottle tops to make jewellery, which she sold to her classmates. This mindset taught her not to disregard items, materials or ideas even if they are deemed worthless, there is always a place for them.
To listen to the full conversation, visit Mission to Change, and explore more of our episodes about the journeys of changemakers.
Images used are courtesy of Cartier Women’s Initiative
*Quotations have been paraphrased