File photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP
JOHANNESBURG - Like many places in the world, Kenya’s coastline faces challenges with waste plastic, from used shopping bags that block drains to throw-away water bottles that litter streets and wash into the sea.

Now the Indian Ocean resort village of Watamu, best known for its tropical beaches and Swahili history, is taking on plastic waste, turning it into homes and furniture - and maybe even a ship capable of sailing all the way to South Africa to raise awareness about plastic pollution.

Sammy Baya, a resident of the coastal community, now owns a house with walls made of stacked glass and plastic bottles.

“It’s just like living in any other house, but this one, unlike other ordinary houses, allows more light to enter, and therefore I don’t use my solar (panels) for lighting when there is a full moon,” he said. “You should see the inside of this house at night when there’s a full moon. It’s mesmerising.”

He added that building his three-bedroom house last year in part with waste plastic and glass cut the cost by about 40percent.

Justin Kitsao, chairperson of the Watamu Marine Association, an environmental non-governmental group, said constructing houses using plastic and glass bottles reduces the need for other building materials, particularly sand and concrete blocks.


Watamu is not the only part of Kenya taking action on plastic waste. The country has banned the sale and use of disposable plastic carry bags, and last month Charles Sunkuli, Kenya’s environmental principal secretary, said his ministry would launch a plastic bottle buy-back scheme in April.

The move is a step back from an earlier proposed total ban on plastic bottles - but it has won the support of the key Kenyan Association of Manufacturers.

Waste disposal planning “needs to be coupled with the instruments and infrastructure to help recycle and re-use waste material”, the association noted in a statement.

Because throw-away plastic creates environmental pollution and takes fossil fuels to produce, cutting back on its use is important to curb climate change and improve the environment, Kenyan environmentalists say.

In Watamu, Eco World, a non-governmental organisation, has hired 17 local people to collect plastic along the Indian Ocean beach each week.

The group then separates the plastics according to weight before grinding some into tiny pieces that are sold to artisans, who use them to make chairs, poles and tables.

Intact plastic and glass bottles are also bound together to create walls that can replace brick and block walls.

Any plastic waste that Eco World cannot sell is donated to an unusual effort to raise awareness: a plastic ship being built in Lamu County is set to sail to South Africa to raise awareness about the importance of recycling plastic to protect the sea.

Ali Skanda, who hopes to captain the voyage in June, said cutting the amount of plastic waste reaching the ocean was becoming increasingly urgent.

“If we continue to litter our water bodies, the marine life might disappear one day,” he predicted in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Melinda Ress, meanwhile, the operations manager at Hemingways, a Watamu resort, said her facility had begun to replace palm leaf roofs on some structures with recycled plastic roofing.

For now the material is imported from Malaysia, but the resort hopes to begin using locally recycled plastic soon, she said.

“I fully support the ban on plastic bags, and I wish that they could extend it to the plastic straws.

“Plastic has been a menace to the marine ecosystem,” Ress said.