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Kenyan women turn plastic waste into bricks stronger than concrete

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Nzambi Matee
Nzambi Matee   -   Copyright  UNEP
By Doloresz Katanich  with AP

“Plastic still has value,” says Nzambi Matee, alongside mountains of oil cans, basins, yoghurt pots and other waste which, in her factory in Nairobi, Kenya, are crushed into small coloured flakes.

The shredded plastic is mixed with sand and heated at extreme temperatures, becoming a viscous and malleable material which is shaped into bricks of all sizes.

This 30-year-old Kenyan engineer and inventor founded her start-up to recycle tonnes of plastics, destined to clog the capital's landfills, into eco-responsible bricks. These are to be used in construction and are stronger, more lightweight and cheaper than cement.

In Kenya and elsewhere, most of the plastic ends its life in landfills, if not in rivers or oceans, while only 10 per cent is recycled.

In Nairobi, we generate around 500 tonnes of plastic waste every day, and only a fraction of that gets recycled.
Nzambi Matee

Every day, the company, Gjenge Makers, produces 1,500 bricks from household or industrial plastics. They are already paving sidewalks, alleys and streets in Nairobi, and could soon also be an alternative material for building low-cost houses.

The end product: a paver two to seven times stronger than cement, but twice as light and even 15 per cent cheaper, says Matee.

In 2021, the company recycled 50 tonnes of plastic, but it aims to double this figure this year.

Gjenge Makers wants to enter the low-cost home market by designing pavers that can replace bricks, cement and other traditional materials.

A prototype is currently in the works, with the aim of achieving a model house by the end of the year.

“We want to be the leaders in alternative building materials,” says Matee.

Her innovative work has earned her praise, she was named Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations in 2020.

Gjenge Makers has created over 100 direct and indirect jobs. This is something Nzambi Matee is especially proud of, as she was able to help both families and the environment in one go.

Watch the video above to learn more about this life-changing project.