Single use plastics are one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Bottles and other materials are difficult to recycle at a rate equal to their use, they crowd landfills, and they become part of massive floating garbage islands in the ocean. In Nairobi alone, 500 metric tons of plastic waste is generated per day. So young engineer and entrepreneur Nzambi Matee decided to do something about it.
Her company, Gjenge Makers in Nairobi, Kenya, gets plastic waste from factories and other industrial sources, combines it with sand, and heats the material up to create bricks that can withstand twice the weight threshold of concrete. The fibrous structure of the plastic makes it not only more lightweight but also less brittle than concrete. Her efforts have won her the African award for the UN's Youth Champions of the Earth.
However, it hasn't been an easy road. Matee says about the founding of her company, "I jumped in, off a cliff without even a parachute. I was building it as I was falling down. But isn't that how great things are done?"
"Our product is almost five to seven times stronger than concrete," Matee told Reuters about the current line of Gjenge Makers pavers and bricks. The company currently manufactures paving bricks. The heavy-duty 60 mm paver is strong enough to be used for parking lots and roads, while the 30 mm light-duty paver can be used for household patios and walkways. The light-duty paver is twice the strength of concrete and comes in a variety of colors.
This comes at a time when Kenya is suffering from a severe problem with plastics pollution. A study supported by the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) found that more than 50% of cattle near urban areas in Kenya had plastic in their stomachs. To combat this issue, the Kenyan government outlawed the use of plastic bags in 2017, and imposed a ban on all single-use plastic in protected natural areas last year.
As of right now, Gjenge Makers can manufacture up to 1,500 bricks each day, according to Reuters. They've been operation since 2017 and have created 120 jobs. Their bricks are also significantly more affordable than the concrete alternative manufactured in the US, with the bricks costing around $7.70 per square meter rather than the $98 for concrete.