A Kenyan entrepreneur has taken discarded plastic and turned it into bricks that can hold twice the weight of concrete blocks.
The same piece of plastic can only be recycled around two or three times before it becomes unrecyclable. So why don’t we recycle this plastic into something that’ll be useful for much longer?
When entrepreneur Nzambi Matee decided to start a social enterprise, Gjenge Makers, she was thinking of solutions to the plastic pollution problem in the East African country. The aim was to address the need for sustainable and affordable alternative construction materials.
Before creating her startup, Nzambi majored in material science and worked as an engineer in Kenya’s oil industry, but in 2017 she quit her job to start creating textured brick pavers through recycling plastic waste. She understood which plastics would bind better together and then created the machinery that would allow her to mass produce them.
Now, Nzambi employs 112 people from marginalised communities as plastic pickers, providing jobs to women and young people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to work. The Nairobi-based factory can produce 1,500 bricks and recycle about 500 kilograms of waste plastic a day.
Gjenge collect the waste material from packaging factories and also buy it from other recyclers. Then they process them using the latest cutting-edge technologies. A combination of shredded plastic and sand is used to form the mixture which they mould into paving blocks, paving tiles and manhole covers.
Working with a combination of the high-density polyethylene used in milk and shampoo bottles, the low-density polyethylene found in sandwich and cereal bags, and the polypropylene used in ropes and buckets, the machine first churns the plastic waste with sand, then heats it and finally compresses it to form bricks.
Gjenge paving bricks come in an array of colours, including red, blue, brown and green. They are strong, tested to hold twice the weight threshold of the concrete blocks, and are far more durable under stress, and lighter to transport.
They produce different bricks: from heavy-duty paver for roads and parking areas, to light-duty pavers for footpaths and household compounds in areas where there is no heavy machinery traffic.
“The alternative building products space is a very new industry and therein exist a myriad of opportunities,” says Nzambi. “At present we have more demand than we can supply and this is the genesis of our biggest challenge.”
In 2020, Nzambi was named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme. She has managed to recycle more than 20 tonnes of plastic waste into paving bricks since 2018 and plans to add a bigger production line.
Nzambi Matee, founder
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