By Nita Bhalla
DADAAB, Kenya, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Somali refugee Adow Sheikh Aden, 32, was mocked when he started gathering empty plastic water bottles, broken buckets and old jerry cans around one of the world's largest refugee camps.
"Everyone used to laugh and say I am mad because I am collecting rubbish. Here it is not normal to do such things," said Aden at the Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya's Garissa County, near the Somali border.
"But then I explained I am helping to keep our environment clean and our community healthy, and also I am selling the plastic to earn money so that I can manage my life and my family better," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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.
"We are collecting just a fraction of the plastic waste that is recyclable in Dadaab, and so a lot more revenue can be made from this," she said.
The next step is to train refugees in entrepreneurship so they can take control of the project, reducing their dependence on aid, she added.
One million plastic drinks bottles are purchased every minute globally, while some 500 billion disposable plastic bags are used worldwide every year, says the United Nations.
It is running a campaign for World Environment Day on June 5 to raise awareness of the urgent need to beat plastic pollution.
Nearly a third of plastic packaging escapes waste collection systems, and at least 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the oceans each year, smothering reefs and threatening marine life.
Plastic also enters water supplies and the food chain, where it could harm humans in the long term, the United Nations says.
Action is gearing up around the world - from countries banning plastic bags to companies vowing to cut their usage of plastic - yet still more efforts are needed to both reduce and recycle plastic, say environmentalists.
The sprawling refugee camp at Dadaab is no different.
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 270,000 jerry cans were discarded each year.
Plastic water bottles and other trash add to the waste, often burned at informal dumps scattered throughout the camp.
"Humanitarian organisations have a role to play," said Kathrine Vad, sustainability advisor with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which supports the Dadaab project.
The agency is working to cut the volume of plastic, especially packaging, used in its operations and to extend the life of plastic products by improving their quality, she added.
At the recycling plant in the KRCS compound near Dadaab, workers wearing overalls, face masks and ear protectors push pieces of plastic buckets and chairs into a funnel atop the shredder.
The machine's blades slice the plastic noisily into hundreds of thousands of shards, which pour out in a heap. It is loaded into sacks and sold to two firms, Premier Industries Ltd and Polytech Plastics Industries Ltd, which transport it to Nairobi.
With his monthly wage of 8,000 shillings, worker Abtidon Ali Mahat, 45, a resident of Dadaab since 2011, has been able to get married, build his own makeshift home and buy three goats.
In the past year, he has saved 12,000 shillings.
"My wife is now pregnant and I will use this money for her and the baby, and also to buy some more goats," he said.
The refugees want to expand the business, but say they need extra staff and a vehicle to cover more of the camp.
They face other challenges too.
Collecting waste can carry a stigma in these communities, which see it as a "low job". And many refugees have yet to grasp the health risks of burning plastic and releasing toxic fumes.
Views are changing gradually but greater awareness is needed to tackle misconceptions and deepen understanding of the benefits of recycling, Red Cross workers said.
Besides challenging views on waste inside Dadaab, the project could also help shatter stereotypes about refugees outside the camp, said Saiti of the KRCS.
"It shows that refugees are not a burden as some people think, but that they can be contributors in our societies - not only in terms of income-generation, but also in environmental protection," she said.
($1 = 101.2500 Kenyan shillings)