Not Just Recycling — Empowering

Kubik
5 min readApr 19, 2022

The past 3 months have been very busy ones for Kubik. Along with everything you could expect an early-stage startup to be occupied with, we have been investing a lot of time understanding the impact of plastic waste on people’s lives — especially those living closest to it.

One crisp morning, I made a call to Mitiku — a waste collection supervisor for Ethiopia’s largest landfill, Koshe. “There a lot of it to show you, Kidus, come anytime,” he said. But even having lived in Addis for over 16 years, I didn’t know where Koshe was (and Google Maps showed a large green expanse…not helpful). Apprehensively navigating through mid-morning rush hour, Mitiku was waiting for me next to a rusty decommissioned excavator, frantically signaling me to slow down and pull over.

Mitiku — a middle-aged man wearing a beige laboratory coat over his shirt and khaki pants — jumped into the car to guide me into the landfill. “You know where we are going right?” He said as he gave my suit and Oxford shoes a puzzled look. “Either this is your last meeting of the day, or you have spare clothes in the back,” he chuckled. “Not sure what landfills in America smell like, but get ready to leave here smelling very different.”

A town on its own. Koshe occupies over 300,000 square meters of Addis Ababa.

After driving up what seemed like a dirt hill, we parked next to a modest office made from corrugated metal sheets. “You are now standing on top of 50 years of trash!” Mitiku elated as he took a 360 spin around to signal the vast brown field dotted in white, blue, and black plastic as far as the eyes can see. Koshe was commissioned in the 1960s by then Emperor Haile Selassie. Back then, Addis Ababa was a town of 500,000 people. Fast forward to 2018, Addis Ababa grew to a population of 4.4 million and Koshe continued to be the sole landfill for the city. Overburdened by the growing volume of waste being dumped in it, the mountain of trash gave in and collapsed into the thousands of pickers and informal dwellers around it. 115 people died.

As advertised, the smell of rot was very strong. Over 80% of Ethiopia’s 10,000,000 kilograms of waste every day is organic (ie food, plants, etc). Untreated and unmanaged, this waste is directly dumped in Koshe. Over time, the decay of these materials cause a massive buildup of methane and other gases that cause a foul smell.

Mitiku and I meandered throughout Koshe as he told me about the 2018 trash avalanche, the methane build up that they are flaring out to mitigate the risk of fire, and the 3,000+ waste pickers subsisting on selling scraps under a dollar a day. We stopped next to a group of women who hastily walked away the moment we approached them. Assuming they were simply shy, I asked Mitiku why they walked away. “Well you see, their brokers don’t allow them to talk to anyone. They don’t want the pickers to make a deal with their clients.”

Seeing my confused look, Mitiku explained that the waste pickers in Koshe — who are predominantly women — sell their pickings to brokers — who are all men. These brokers then resell the pickings to various companies looking for specific materials — especially scrap metal and plastic bottles. After seeing Mitiku’s hesitation to tell me the margins these brokers were making, I went over to a broker and asked him how much he would sell 1 ton of plastic bottles to me for. “4000 Birr. But I can do it for 18,000 Birr if you buy 5 tons.” He said in one breathe. I asked another broker who gave me the same price. “Brother, it is a set price, but buy 10 tons and I will give you a special price. 35,000 Birr.” Before I knew it, the 4 brokers encircled me and began to call out their price.

Feeling the responsibility of my safety, Mitiku intervened to pull me away. “These guys are Mafia, Kidus. They control everything. Price. Everything.”

Brokers oversee the pickings of the day.

I still wanted to know how much the pickers’ price was. As we began to walk back to the car, I couldn’t help but see a girl who couldn’t be no more than 15 years old. Filth had made the color of her clothes and skin one, and she was digging through a fresh pile of trash — placing small metallic parts into a sack. Determined to talk to her, I walked over with a smile and asked for her name. She took a pause as if to remember and then responded, “they call me Marti.”

Marti does not know how old she is. She grew up in Koshe when her older sister and her trekked from their village about 50 kilometers away. Her mother died when she was still months old. She does not know her father. Koshe is all Marti knows. She sells metal scraps for 2 Birr per kilogram and plastic bottles for 6 Birr per kilo. The brokers resell them for 18 Birr and 40 Birr per kilogram, respectively. Marti loses out on at least 85% of the market value of her pickings, keeping her suppressed to live under extreme poverty.

The real heroes. Close to 3000 waste pickers scrape Koshe for valuables.

Driving back from Koshe, I couldn’t stop thinking about Marti. If Kubik is going to be building dignity, it needed to start with Marti. The millions of unsung heroes that labor to manage our waste are also the most underserved. Building their dignity through equitable pay and a safe working condition will not only be Kubik’s priority — it will be where Kubik starts its business from.

Marti had an infectious smile throughout the time we spoke. I asked her what makes her happy the most. She simply responded, “When I’m noticed.”

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Kubik

Turning plastic waste into low-carbon, low-cost buildings.