Kenyan Engineer Turns Plastic Waste Into Useful Bricks
By Ella Chen
29-year-old Nzambi Matee lives in the East African country of Kenya, which has been at the forefront of the global war since 2017, when the government banned plastic bags. They upped the ante with a ban on single-use plastics in certain areas in June 2020. Unfortunately, these preemptive measures have barely made a dent in the amount of pollution. Hundreds of tons of consumer and industrial polymer waste continue to get dumped into landfills daily. However, the Kenyan engineer has come up with a solution: transforming the huge heaps of plastic waste into sturdy, colorful bricks.
Matee has been trying to find a possible solution to slow down plastic pollution since 2017. She resigned from her job as a data analyst at a local chemical factory and set up a small lab in her mother’s backyard. It took her nine months to develop and make the first brick and even longer to convince her friend to help build the machinery needed to make them. But the determined materials engineer and eco-entrepreneur was confident in her idea and did not give up.
Her company, Gjenge Makers, now employs 112 people and makes over 1,500 bricks a day. They are made using a mix of plastic products - from buckets to empty shampoo bottles to flip-flops - that cannot be reprocessed or recycled. The polymer is shipped to them directly by factories or picked up from Nairobi’s largest landfill, Dandora, by hired locals. The plastics are mixed with sand, heated to extremely high temperatures, and compressed into bricks that vary in color and thickness. The result is a product that is lighter, stronger, and about 30 percent cheaper than concrete bricks. Most importantly, it repurposes the lowest quality of plastic. “There is that waste they cannot process anymore; they cannot recycle. That is what we get," Matee says.
She continued, “I wanted to use my education in applied physics and materials engineering to do something about the problem of plastic waste pollution. But I was very clear that the solution had to be practical, sustainable, and affordable. The best way to do this was by channeling the waste into the construction/building space and finding the most efficient and affordable material to build homes."
Matee is far from done; her dream is to reduce the mountain of trash in Dandora to just a hill by expanding her offerings and increasing production. She was recently recognized as one of the Young Champions of the Earth 2020, the United Nations’ highest environmental honor. She says, "The more we recycle the plastic, the more we produce affordable housing. . .the more we create more employment for the youth."