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‘Trash has value’: Kenyan inventor turns plastic into bricks

‘Trash has value’: Kenyan inventor turns plastic into bricks

‘Trash has value’: Kenyan inventor turns plastic into bricks
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“Plastic still has value,” said Nzambi Matee of the mountains of discarded oil drums, laundry buckets, yoghurt tubs and other trash being shredded into colourful flakes at her Nairobi factory.

“I believe that plastic is one of the misunderstood materials.”

Her start-up recycles tonnes of plastic intended for landfills into eco-friendly bricks that are stronger, cheaper, and lighter than concrete, as the 30-year-old Kenyan engineer and inventor knows.

These ecological paving blocks, which she designed herself, already line Nairobi’s roads, driveways, and walkways, but could soon be used as an alternative building material for low-cost housing.

Every day, her company, Gjenge Makers, produces 1,500 bricks out of industrial and domestic plastic that would otherwise end up in the city’s enormous landfills.

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The young entrepreneur quit a job in oil and gas — the very industry that makes plastic from fossil fuels — to explore recycling after being shocked at how little trash was being reused.

“In Nairobi, we generate about 500 metric tonnes of plastic waste every single day, and only a fraction of that is recycled,” said Matee, who bounds with the energy around the factory floor in denim overalls and trainers.

“And that made me think — what happens to this plastic?”

 

– Stronger, lighter, cheaper –

The majority of it ends up in landfills, rivers, and oceans, with only around 10% being recycled.

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Matee found an infinite source of raw material to work with in Nairobi, one of Africa’s fastest-growing capitals, exploring the city’s points and industrial zones for waste plastic.

It took several years to build a prototype — the machinery needed was specifically made and sourced from leftover industrial parts — but manufacturing was well started by 2019.

The shredded plastic is combined with sand and heated to produce a sludge that is then moulded into various sized blocks.

The end result is a paver that is anywhere between two and seven times stronger than concrete, half the weight, and as much as 15 per cent cheaper, says Matee.

It is also more durable.

The unique manufacturing technique prevents air pockets from accumulating within the bricks because plastic is fibrous in nature. This gives the paving stones more compression strength than traditional paving stones, which crack when subjected to severe force or prolonged exposure to the elements.

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“Because of that, it doesn’t break,” said Matee, clapping two of the plastic bricks together sharply.

In 2021, they recycled 50 tonnes of plastic but Matee hopes to double that amount this year as production expands.

 

– Big plans –

There are limitations.

Of the seven major types of plastic, only four can be recycled into bricks.

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PET plastic — the kind used in plastic bottles and a major scourge on the environment — is not yet compatible, but they hope to change that.

“There is more that can be done, there is more that needs to be done. We are just a single drop in the ocean… small, small drops will make a big effect,” Matee said.

They are trying to break into the affordable housing market by designing a block that can replace or complement bricks, mortar and other standard building materials.

A prototype is in the works, with plans to build a model home by the end of the year.

“We want to be the leaders in alternative building products. Our first area of attack is plastic,” Matee said.

Her trailblazing work has attracted accolades and earned another boost earlier this year after she designed a custom gavel for a major UN environment summit where the plastic trash crisis topped the agenda.

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Gjenge Makers has also created over 100 direct and indirect jobs through recycling plastic — helping both livelihoods and the environment in a way Matee says wasn’t possible working with fossil fuels.

“Let’s just say I sleep better,” she said with a grin.

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