Kenyan scientist's plastic pollution solution? Use bottles as building material
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Gilgil, Kenya - Hope
Mwanake understands the plastic pollution crisis facing Kenya
better than most.
An environmental scientist who ran a waste collection
service in Kenya's central town of Gilgil, she witnessed first
hand the mountains of plastic buckets, bottles and jerry cans
discarded by residents, hotels, shops and schools.
"We were just dumping all the plastic in the landfill. It
didn't make sense. We knew there had to be a better way," said
Mwanake, 30, at her factory on the outskirts of Gilgil, 120 km
(75 miles) north of the capital Nairobi.
"We wanted to do something with all this plastic waste and
after a lot of brainstorming, research and experimenting, we
came up with a value-added product with market demand that would
also help to reduce all this plastic in the environment."
Along with business partner and fellow environmental
scientist Kevin Mureithi, she founded "Eco Blocks and Tiles" in
2016. It is the first company in Kenya to manufacture roof tiles
and other construction materials from plastic and glass waste.
The tiles are more durable, lighter and easier to transport
and install than concrete or clay tiles. They are also safer for
rainwater collection, but are available at a similar cost.
Through word of mouth, promotions in hardware stores and
social media posts, the start-up has attracted dozens of home
owners and small businesses this past year.
The company has also gained support from the Kenyan
government, which is promoting the use of sustainable greener
materials as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions
generated from the east African nation's construction industry.
"With the growing population, expanding urban fabric,
commitment to provide affordable housing in Kenya and net-zero
carbon buildings by 2050, such products have a potential
market," said Kenya's National Construction Authority (NCA).
Pollution is also a concern so repurposing plastic to build
is a "win-win", the NCA added in a statement.
A million plastic drinks bottles are bought every minute
globally, while some 500 billion disposable plastic bags are
used every year, says the United Nations.
Nearly a third of plastic packaging escapes waste collection
systems, and at least 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into the
oceans each year, smothering reefs and threatening marine life.
Plastic also enters water supplies and the food chain, where
it could harm people in the long term, the U.N. says.
A global fightback is gearing up - Kenya has banned plastic
bags, other countries target straws or styrofoam - yet
environmentalists say much more is needed.
With Kenya producing more than 3 million tonnes of waste -
of which only 8% is recycled, scientists-turned-entrepreneurs
Mwanake and Mureithi felt something had to be done.
"We examined the properties of plastic and glass and then we
literally cooked empty shampoo and vegetable bottles in a big
drum and mixed the molten polymer with sand crushed from glass
waste," said Mwanake.
"It looked like a strange porridge but once placed in moulds
and cooled, we found we had a very strong and durable product."
Since the pair set up the company, they have tapped crowd
funding and attracted grants from organisations such as
packaging firm Mondi and Netherlands-based ViaWater.
Commercial production of the ecotiles began in 2018.
Each tile is priced at 850 Kenyan shillings ($8.50) -
equivalent to the price of concrete or clay tiles.
An average three-bed house requires 1,000 to 2,000 tiles.
The company employs four permanent staff and supports scores
of community garbage collectors by purchasing their raw material
- plastic and glass waste chucked by Gilgil's residents.
So far, they have turned more than 56 tonnes of plastic
waste into 75,000 tiles for 30 homes and businesses.
SAVES FORESTS TOO
Coffee shop owner Julia Tatton didn't hesitate when she saw
the plastic roof tiles on display outside her neighbour's store.
"These tiles are going to last forever and are going to
outlive me for sure," she said. "They actually work out cheaper
as they are lighter than clay tiles, so you actually save money
on the wooden support required to hold them in place."
Customers save up to 40 percent on wood when using ecotiles,
said Mureithi, to the benefit of their pocket and the forests.
The ecotiles are also helping Kenya's booming construction
industry cut its carbon emissions by providing more green and
sustainable alternatives to concrete tiles.
Cement, a key ingredient of concrete, releases 5% to 8% of
global greenhouse gas during its manufacturing, according to the
Global Cement and Concrete Association, a non-profit.
As governments and companies look to cut planet-warming
emissions, in line with Paris Agreement goals to limit global
temperature rise to "well under" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6F),
finding ways to 'green' construction is key.
Mwanake said it was vital to boost visibility and awareness
to grow her business, as many Kenyan consumers had a negative
view about eco-friendly, recycled products.
"Unlike in Western countries where labelling a product as
'eco-friendly' is considered a positive by consumers and it is
quickly snapped up, in Kenya it can be seen as a negative ... as
if the product is of lower quality," said Mwanake.
"That view is slowly changing, but it is taking time," she
said. "We know there is a market. We just have to reach it."