Staff Profile: Peter Muthui Mutua, Championing Excellence in Teaching and Learning Through Waste Management

By John Sande
Ever wondered where and how your left-over food item is disposed? Do you know how that tissue napkin, serviette, snack wrappings, yoghurt cup, soft drink or water bottle - casually discarded into the litter bins around campus is handled? How about that crumpled or shredded paper and other rejected office stationery, where does it end up? Did you know our School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and the clinic processes and churns out tons of toxic used-up chemicals, and biological waste that if left unattended would be lethal and hazardous to our conducive and serene learning environment? How is all that waste managed and disposed?

Welcome to the Incinerator – our little powerhouse that is championing excellence in teaching and learning through proper disposal of waste and the maintenance of a healthy environment for all.

Meet Peter Muthui Mutua
Donned in his usual faded purple overcoat, you might have seen him driving the university tractor from one point to another, hauling a trailer loaded with waste bags. You will also find him in the far-flung corners of the university moving debris from the field near gate ‘D’, towing the mobile generator to the rugby pitch to supply power for a sports event in the field, mowing the grass, or at his workstation located in the building at the edge of Parking ‘C’, next to the Freida Brown Student Center. Meet Peter ‘Gathuri’ Muthui Mutua, a machine operator in-charge of the Incinerator Facility.

Fondly known as ‘Gathuri’ by his peers, Peter Muthui Mutua is a man on a mission: to ensure a conducive learning and habitable environment for all. I visited him at his workstation to appreciate his contribution to the USIU-Africa community setup.

A Typical Day in the Office

As the sun rises over the city, Mutua wakes up early to start his day as an incinerator operator. Upon arrival at his office, Mutua inspects the machinery and equipment at the incinerator facility. As a Machine Operator, Mutua is trained to efficiently operate incinerator machines, understanding the complex mechanisms and controls involved in the combustion process. With this knowledge, he ensures all the systems are functioning correctly and that the facility is operating safely. This includes checking the water, temperature and pressure levels, as well as the fuel supply and ash disposal system. Once he is satisfied that everything is in good working order, Mutua starts the incinerator.

“I ensure the gauges are working well. I inject the fuel into, and activate the primary burner. This acts like a matchstick to fire up the secondary and main burner which I then regulate using the heat knob. The primary burner can then be switched off,” explains Mutua as he shows off the various instruments on the control panel.

While the incinerator is heating up, Mutua inspects and sorts out the waste delivered from all collection points across campus based on type – food, plastics, metal tins, spray cans, papers/stationery, chemicals etc. He then loads the contents into the incinerator ensuring a balanced mix of all types of waste materials to maximize on efficiency where it is burnt at ultrahigh temperatures, and later unloading the resulting ash after the incineration process.

“The inspection and sorting ensure we know the contents and adjust the burner accordingly. Blue polythene bags are used by the cleaning company for collection of leaves swept across the campus, and dumped in an isolated field for collection later. The red bags contain well labeled bio-hazardous waste from the School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and the Clinic, which go into the burner immediately. The black bags, used across the campus in most bins collect all manner of waste,” explains Mutua as he points at the assorted pile of waste colored polythene bags.

Throughout the day, Mutua constantly monitors the incinerator's performance, checking temperatures, fuel levels, and other vital parameters and adjusting the controls and systems as necessary, while reloading more garbage to ensure efficient, optimal performance and safe operation. He also performs routine maintenance and repairs on the equipment to keep it running smoothly, including ensuring the firing nozzles in the primary burners are free off blockage.

“The incinerator has a capacity of 50 kilograms only, and this was adequate up to when the university reached the Library and Information Center. We now have the Student Center, Science Building and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I am forced to reload the waste every couple of hours due to its low furnace capacity. However, for growth purposes, we should consider an incinerator capable of accommodating 100 kilograms or more, plus the heat generated from the burning waste can be used to produce steam, which can generate electricity hence self-power the incinerator,” he added enthusiastically.

One of the most challenging aspects of Mutua's job is dealing with bio-hazardous waste. He however adheres strictly to government safety protocols and occupation workplace guidelines to maintain a safe working environment, and wears protective gear to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals or materials, accidents or mishaps during the operation. However, this does not guarantee total safety.

"I have adequate gear for protection including masks and heat-resistant apron. However, I have been affected before after inhaling fumes emitted from burning chemicals, and at another point, a pressurized can exploded missing me by inches – and in both instances I had opened the furnace to reload the waste,” he quipped. “Overall, it is a safe operating area as you can see,” he adds showing me around the furnace.

“It is my duty to ensure compliance with National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) regulations and guidelines related to emissions and waste disposal, minimizing the impact of incineration on the environment,” he proudly confessed.

As the day ends, Mutua shuts down the incinerator and performs a final check to ensure that everything is in order ready for yet another day, when the day breaks. He fills out reports and records of the day's activities, noting any issues or concerns.

What it takes to be a Machine Operator
Despite the physically demanding and sometimes hazardous nature of his job, Mutua takes pride in his work as a Machine Operator. With over 12 years work experience and a certificate of recognition for best employee (2013), Mutua knows that the proper disposal of waste is essential for public health and safety, and he takes his responsibility seriously, and with utmost dedication.

“Technical proficiency is key in understanding the mechanical aspects of incinerator machines for efficient operation. I am glad to have received critical and comprehensive training from the manufacturers of this incinerator,” he said pointing out the manufacturers name branded on the machine.

“Given the dynamic nature of waste processing, the ability to adapt to changing situations and conditions is crucial. Precision and attention to detail are critical to monitor the incineration process accurately and be able to react accordingly should this need arise, while maintaining safety standards,” he added strongly. “Quick thinking and effective problem-solving skills are therefore vital to address any impromptu issues that may arise during the incineration process,” he emphasized.

“Ultimately, I cannot do this alone. Collaborating effectively with my colleagues and other team members across the university ensures smooth operations of the incinerator, efficient waste management and disposal, and maintenance of a clean, healthy environment for all,” he said with finality.

So, next time you discard that piece of paper or bottle, or pour out that chemical or food remains, take a moment to appreciate Mutua – and many more like him in the Maintenance Department – for the work they do, and the contribution they make to ensure a pristine learning environment for all. Mutua is quite aware that his job as an incinerator operator is not glamorous, but it is necessary, and he is proud to be a part of it. Give him a shout out next time you bump into him!

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