3 Mins Read
Kenya’s plastic pollution crisis has reached a tipping point, especially with the western world continuing to export its plastic waste to the African continent. The country is drowning in plastic, from clogged waterways to hazardous landfills, this non-biodegradable material is creating havoc in communities. However, one woman has arrived at an innovative solution to combat this crisis, and at the same time, make an impact in communities.
Kenya’s waste problem
According to a 2015 report, Kenya’s capital Nairobi produces around 2,400 tons of solid waste daily. Out of this, 20% is plastic waste. But only 45% of this waste is recycled or reused, compared to the 80% target planned by the National Environment Management Authority.
One of Africa’s largest unregulated landfill sites, the Dandora landfill spans over 30 acres, equivalent to 22 football fields. There, 1000 trucks of waste are dumped every day. It has already reached maximum capacity and was supposed to be closed 20 years ago. Due to the illegal dumping, a majority of the smoking debris drastically affects the health of surrounding communities. Several rivers are choked with plastic forming an unsinkable base.
Two years ago, the U.S. exported over one billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 countries, one of which was Kenya, making the plastic problem even worse for the country. Now, Washington plans to include shipments of plastic waste in a proposed trade deal. This will make it even tougher for the African country to grapple with the crisis.
Nzambi Matee, a material scientist, decided to take things into her own hands and tackle the plastic pollution crisis. She turned this plastic into something useful: building blocks.
At first, she wasn’t sure if her idea would work. But nine months later, in 2018, she developed her first brick. Once she understood how to convert this plastic into bricks, she set up a machine in 2019 to produce them on a large scale.
How does it work?
Matee uses post-industrial plastic waste from industries and post-consumer plastic waste from recyclers as raw material. This waste includes plastic bottles and containers. The waste is further sorted to remove any traces of rubble and metal. The plastic is then sent for baking and the boiling mixture is dropped into molds of building blocks.
This entire process has the capacity to produce 2000 bricks each day. They are 35% more durable than traditional bricks and seven times stronger as they have a melting point of over 350°C. The pavers are certified by the Kenyan Bureau of Standards.
Founder of Gjenge Makers, Matee now uses her social enterprise to produce alternative and more affordable building materials through recycled plastic waste. In 2020, she introduced her product for use in pavers, an exterior flooring traditionally made of concrete or brick and is utilized for making pathways in small households.
In the Mukuru Slums Development Project, where the Mukuru Skills Training Centre is located, pavements would become muddy during the rainy season. Neither gravel nor cement slabs worked out. Then they tried Gjenge’s slabs and now the pavements are durable. The bricks are also used in the Nairobi Central Business District’s driveways, footpaths, and sidewalks.
For this innovation, Matee was named as Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Matee plans to collaborate with large construction companies in the future. She wants to offer her solutions for making construction posts and plastic timber.
Matee believes that the plastic should be used in its respective home country. The more plastic is recycled, the more avenues for affordable housing there will be. This will also create employment opportunities.
Lead image courtesy of Gjenge Makers.