Engineer turns plastic waste into bricks that are ‘tougher than concrete’

Patricia Martínez

Nairobi, Feb 18 (efe-epa).- Every day, Nzambi Matee is confronted with an omnipresent reality that is widely ignored or overlooked: plastic waste. At a small factory in Nairobi, the young Kenyan engineer combines parts of discarded milk and shampoo bottles and bags of cereal with sand, melts the mixture at high temperatures and molds it into bricks.

“We were just tired (that nothing was being done). Plastic waste is not a Kenyan problem, it is a global problem. And if we don’t have practical solutions, asking people to start adopting the recycle culture can be a challenge,” Matee, 29, tells Efe.

She is the founder of Gjenge Makers, which produces sustainable construction material out of plastic waste.

Since launching the project in 2017, Matee and her team of nine workers have recycled some 20 tons of plastic waste, averaging nearly 1,500 bricks a day.

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city, is believed to produce around 500 tons of plastic waste every day.

Matee’s original idea was to collect plastic waste and sell it to local recycling factories, but faced with the sheer amount of plastic they were accumulating, they began manufacturing bricks that are stronger than the concrete itself.

“It is three or four times stronger than a normal concrete brick because plastic is (…) fibrous, it creates (fewer) air pockets when it is cooling down,” says Matee, who has a degree in Physics and Geophysics, and specialized in Materials Sciences.

For her, the ultimate goal is to create a fertile space for a circular economy to flourish around plastic, similar to other materials such as iron, whose scrap is nearly always reused.

“The life cycle of metal is really well established – you don’t see metal waste, because there is value to it. And that is my hope and prayer to any other material: that goes for plastic, food waste (…) there has to be a value attached to it,” she adds.

Only nine percent of all plastic generated globally is recycled, and even in developed countries, the recycling rate of waste collected in homes is less than 50 percent, according to Greenpeace.

Matee, like other voices that are critical of the so-called “old normal” and which are demanding a green post-pandemic recovery, believes that this is a good time “to hit the pause button”.

“The data is saying that during the pandemic people went back to the basics of what humanity is: caring for each other and caring for the environment,” she says.

“It will take time, but with the pause and the mental shift that Covid has provided us, this will be a really good beginning of a more environmentally conscious generation,” she adds. EFE-EPA


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