The city of Nairobi generates some 500 metric tons of plastic waste every day. Much of it ends up in landfill, or worse, dumped in rivers and roadsides across the country. To help combat the deluge, 29-year-old materials engineer Nzambi Matee started experimenting with ways to turn this waste into a resource. The result is Gjenge Makers, a start-up which recycles bags, containers, and other discarded plastic into bricks that can be used for patios, pavements and other construction projects.
We’ve seen plastic bricks before, but Gjenge pavers are noteworthy for being both affordable and incredibly durable. They have a melting point of over 350°C, and are stronger than concrete. This was achieved through three years of trial and error, in which Matee and her team tested different combinations of plastic and sand, and developed the machinery needed to process them.
Now, Gjenge Makers are churning out 1,500 pavers a day. Much of the raw plastic is sourced directly (and sometimes for free) from factories and recyclers, allowing the company to reduce the price point on the product. This makes it affordable for schools and homeowners, including those in Nairobi’s slums, where wood and other building materials are often scarce and expensive.
“It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter – a basic human need,” said Matee in a statement. She reminds us: “Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but its after life can be disastrous.”
So far, Gjenge Makers has recycled more than 20 tonnes of plastic and created 112 job opportunities in the community. This is exciting, especially considering Matee’s ambitions to educate and empower other youths in Africa to take on local waste issues.
Of course, it’s important to note that the ultimate solution to our plastic problem would be to stop the production of new plastics in the first place. But recycling and reusing still has a vital role to play in the transition to a circular economy. After all, we need to find ways to extend the life of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic already on the planet. The faster, smarter and safer we can do that, the better.
All images by Gjenge Makers.
For more inspiring stories like this, follow the No Waste Challenge, a global competition presented by What Design Can Do and the IKEA Foundation. Innovators from around the world are invited to submit creative solutions to reduce waste and rethink our entire production and consumption cycle. The deadline for submissions is 20 April 2021.
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