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Somalian refugees become plastic waste warriors in one of world’s biggest camps

“We are refugees and we don’t have any money, so we continue our work. That’s why we continue our work,” said Aden at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya’s Garissa County, near the Somali border.

Having fled war in Somalia, Aden is part of a small band of refugees who have taken up the fight against the plastic waste generated in Dadaab – and also earns an income from it.

Dadaab’s waste recycling project, set up by the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) just over a year ago, has only eight refugee staff. But initial results are promising, and the plan is to grow, aid workers say.

In a cement-and-iron building equipped with a plastic shredder and compressor, the refugees have recycled about six tonnes of plastic waste so far, generating some 160,000 Kenyan shillings ($1,580) in revenue.

Nelly Saiti, KRCS project officer, said plastic recycling has huge potential as a sustainable business for refugees, and could be a model for other large camps such as Bidi Bidi in Uganda, Kakuma in Kenya and Nyarugusu in Tanzania.

Situated 475 km (300 miles) east of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Dadaab is home to more than 200,000 refugees, largely from Somalia, who depend on aid – much of it packed in plastic.

As Somalia descended into civil war, Dadaab was established by the United Nations in 1991, and has since mushroomed, with more refugees streaming in, uprooted by drought and famine as well as ongoing insecurity. Many have lived here for years.

The settlement – spread over 30 square km (7,415 acres) of semi-arid desert land – has schools, hospitals, markets, police stations, graveyards and a bus station.

Residents have few ways to earn a living other than rearing goats, manual labour and running kiosks sewing clothes, selling camel meat, or charging cell phones from solar panels.

Kenyan government restrictions mean refugees cannot leave the camp to seek work.

As a result, people are poor. They live in tarpaulin tents or shacks made of corrugated iron and branches, and rely on rations of cooking oil, milk powder, rice and sugar – much of it sent by foreign donors in plastic packaging.

There is no accurate data on the amount of plastic waste produced in Dadaab, but aid workers estimate hundreds of thousands of tonnes are generated annually. A 2015 Red Cross study said 2,70,000 jerry cans were discarded each year.

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