Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporter
EVERY environmentalist’s nightmare may be turning into a blissful dream, following a game-changing innovation by a National University of Science and technology (Nust) graduate.
Plastic, that non-biodegradable pollutant that has been clogging the environment for centuries has been on a priority list for eradication by green earth advocates and now a Nust student is proffering a solution.
Countries such as Kenya and Rwanda have banned the use of plastic bags for more environmentally friendly material.
But Zimbabwe might just continue to use the plastic for prolonged periods as Nust youthful innovator has created a biodegradable plastic.
Ms Nontuthuzelo Ncube (27), a chemical engineering graduate, who is a tutorial assistant at the university has come up with a revolutionary concept to turn potato peels into plastic.
She believes young people have a duty to solve problems they see in their communities and to her, litter is one of them.
To put the plastic menace into context, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) estimates that the country generates about 300 tonnes of plastic waste every year.
The centre for biological diversity, a United States of America-based environmental watchdog says it takes about 1 000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, the centre adds, the bags don’t break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
Thanks to Ms Ncube, the horror of plastics that continue to kill marine life and compromise entire food chains, may soon be a thing of the past.
“My project is to produce biodegradable plastic from potato peels. The main idea behind the project is to eliminate problems that are caused by plastics. Plastics are non-biodegradable meaning they don’t decompose. This means if the bio plastic is left it will decompose like other waste that we have like isitshwala. If we look at plastics, plastics fly all over and cause environmental problems,” said Ms Ncube, from Tjelanyemba in Matobo District.
She said her project falls within President Mnangagwa’s national vision of going green and adopting environmentally friendly products.
“From the potato peels, the main thing that I’m extracting is the starch and that is the main ingredient that is replacing the plastics that are non-bio degradable. So, if a cow eats this plastic made from potato peels, it will be able to digest it as it is biodegradable,” said Ms Ncube.
So many times, farmers worry about their animals eating plastic as this results in cattle dying as they would have failed to digest it.
Miss Ncube is working with Nust to make the innovation become a reality.
Shortage of resources have resulted in young innovators struggling to have successful projects as some people end up stealing their ideas.
“Most of the time we have challenges accessing equipment. Some of the equipment is not there particularly if I want to characterise something. I have to send samples to South Africa. It makes the project take too long to be completed but we must do these projects as fast as possible because if you take long to conduct research someone can even steal your idea and implement it,” said Ms Ncube.
She said her project is part of Education 5.0 which the Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development Ministry is spearheading.
Ms Ncube said the new education thrust enables youths to have a change of mindset from being job seekers to employment creators.
“We are always told that we need to start our own things as youths. We need to be innovative and Education 5.0 requires us to be innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs. This is another route that we can take. This project is promising, I’m actually enjoying doing it and one day it will pay in the long run,” said Ms Ncube.
Nust’s director of communication and marketing Mr Thabani Mpofu said Ms Ncube’s innovation is one of the student-led projects being developed at the university’s innovation hub.
“Our thrust is that we are now producing entrepreneurial graduates. We want these students, by the time they graduate to have their own businesses. They should be able to create employment through those businesses that they would have incubated through the innovation hub. We don’t want to just prepare our students for a job market but we want them to be employers through their start-up companies,” said Mr Mpofu.
He said soon the university will be launching start-up companies inspired by students’ innovations.
EMA spokesperson Ms Amkele Sidange said it was pleasing that local institutions were finding solutions to the plastic menace.
“We really appreciate where research and development is coming into play to identify solutions to plastic problems where they come up with alternatives that have no capacity to cause no further harm to the environment. As an agency we really applaud and call for more research and development to lasting solutions especially when there are solutions that are coming from locals, they tend to be affordable,” said Ms Sidange.
She said the country produces 300 tonnes of plastic annually and due to improper use, there is a lot of pollution that occurs and there is a need for drastic measures to arrest environmental contamination.
“In Zimbabwe about 18 percent of the waste that we generate is plastic that translates to plus or minus 300 tonnes of plastic per year.
To some people this could be nothing but you need to look at the character of plastic. It is a light material in weight meaning that for it to occupy 300 tonnes, we need more space,” she said.
“As Zimbabwe we have realised that plastic cause other problems like blocking of sewer resulting in blockages, they clog storm drains resulting in flash floods in urban areas and to the farmers, it also affects them because when animals ingest plastics, they develop digestive problems resulting in some fatalities.” — @nqotshili