Students from the University of Vermont have won a SWANA competition for their proposed design to transform the troublesome Bakoteh dumpsite in the Gambia (in West Africa) into a valuable community resource. Their ideas for innovation range from converting plastic waste to building blocks for community development projects to greenspaces and other aesthetic improvements. The stressed, underperforming site could ideally better serve the people of Gambia.
The participants who won SWANA’s International Solid Waste Design Competition (SWDC) are enrolled in the University of Vermont’s Grossman School of Business’ Sustainable Innovation MBA program.
Their goal was to develop a robust, feasible real-life solution that local government officials could implement – the Kanifing Municipal Council (KMC) –soon, say the five-student team.
It was a life and future-career lesson that builds on what they were already learning as students of a focused academic sustainability curriculum.
“Our collective experience with project management, industrial composting, and urban planning, alongside our current education work, supported us as we gained first-time, practical engineering experience. The introduction we got through this SWANA challenge to the logistics of waste management offered experience in collaboration, research, technical requirements, and diversity of stakeholders that are transferrable into the field,” says participant Cecilia Giordano.
Giordano and her peers began by researching the region and problems as laid out by SWANA.
Then they dove deeper: exploring the various stakeholders involved to ensure their approach could address the unique difficulties of each of them, from informal pickers to Bakoteh Dumpsite operations employees, local businesses, and potential investors.
Competition participant Josh Kenyon illustrates how he and his teammates kept the interests of identified stakeholders as a central focus of their proposed plans. He exemplifies a few specific scenarios.
“Right away, we recognized the community as one of the most important stakeholder groups. The social and environmental impact of the existing landfill was disproportionally affecting the community immediately surrounding the Bakoteh Dumpsite. We decided to create solutions that could enhance their overall health and wellbeing while still being financially feasible for the municipality,” Kenyon says.
With that in mind, they came up with onsite features such as a pathway barrier wall to block access to the dump adjacent to the walking path, an information pavilion, community green spaces, and a potential solar array.
The informal pickers were important to shaping the plan. They earn money separating waste and recycling and extracting valuable materials and depend on the site to provide for themselves and their families.
“Understanding our solution meet pickers’ needs needed to inspire our suggestion to leverage the knowledge and unique expertise of this stakeholder group to operate the new transfer station. Under our proposed operation, informal pickers could be recognized as valuable members of the local economy while creating a safer and more productive work environment,” Kenyon says.
Then came a recommendation which Kenyon says ultimately became the linchpin of the team’s proposal. That recommendation was to partner with tech company ByFusion to transform plastic waste into building materials for infrastructure development projects, both on-site and in the community.
“ByFusion’s blocker is simple to transport and install, could reduce the plastic waste that remains on-site, and is durable enough to withstand the climate conditions—all while being economically viable for the municipality and benefiting everyone. As MBA students seeking business solutions with social impact, this system was to us truly the ultimate solution,” Kenyon says.
Working through this case competition was a true test of the knowledge they have gained over the past year, says student participant Chandler Jacobson.
“Given that this was not inherently a ‘business competition,’ we started this process without a whole lot of confidence. However, seeing how it worked out, the concept of ‘business as a force for good’ seems to have been validated,” he says.
“We entered with humility and awareness of our comparative skillset differences. We sought to focus on those people most affected by the prospective design while honoring the incredible amount of work the KMC and many organizations within had done to date,” Giordano says.
The team had thoughts on what they would change if they were to tackle a similar project again. In their responses, collaboration was a central theme, whether they would partner with solid waste management professionals, or says Giordano, “It would’ve been incredible to have the case competition pair up teams from different schools!”
Next-generation of solid waste management
In SWANA’s view, the competition facilitates its focus on developing the next generation of solid waste management professionals who will address tough challenges that lie ahead.
“Not only does SWANA want to see these bright students in action as they come up with fresh, innovative ideas, we also develop a stronger connection with the academic world who conduct needed research for moving our industry forward. Students work on real-world solid waste management issues while showing their talents to potential employers and networking with industry professionals who can help jump-start their careers. It’s a win-win for everyone,” says Shelby Truxon, SWANA Membership program manager.
Giordano, like SWANA, thinks about the future – and not just as it relates to her own career, but she thinks about what may lie ahead for the Gambia waste management system that she became entrenched in.
“Building off an existing effort by KMC to transform the space was beautiful. But I was challenged knowing that the core barriers to implementing the plans those at the KMC had made were around capital and collaboration under COVID-19, such as work restrictions, public safety, supply chain issues, and the same challenges faced the worldwide world.
I hope our work, specifically in the financial proposal, will generate new ideas for successfully funding the project moving forward,” Giordano says.
Kudos also to SWANA SWDC second-place winner, the University of Texas-Arlington, and third-place winner Wayne State University.
The University of Texas-Arlington’s design highlighted a potential approach to solid waste infrastructure for the greater Kanifing urban area beyond the Bakoteh Dumpsite while considering the issues around Bakoteh.
Wayne State University’s design included an open-air transfer station/material recovery facility to maintain a hub for waste in the community while elevating protections for waste pickers.