Meet the woman who turns Kenya’s plastic waste problem into a building solution: plastic building blocks
For the latest report in our “Series, CBS News Correspondent Debora Patta went to Kenya to learn about a creative approach to tackling the scourge of plastic pollution.
Nairobi – Floating in the middle of the world’s largest oceanis an artificial jumble of plastic garbage that covers twice the area of the state of Texas. Kenya is one of many countries that contribute to pollution.
In the capital Nairobi alone, hundreds of tons of plastic waste are generated every day. On the outskirts of the sprawling city, the Dandora garbage dump festers – about 30 acres or 22 soccer fields of waste. Despite a groundbreaking single-use plastic ban in 2017, Kenya is still drowning.
But while most people are looking at Dandora and seeing an insurmountable plastic mountain, Patta met a young woman who is finding innovative ways to address the problem and move that mountain.
There are days in Kenya when you can actually walk on water. Patta saw a river so clogged with plastic that it formed an unsinkable foundation. It is a disruptive health risk for everyone who lives there, but not for Nzambi Matee.
“I get excited when I see garbage,” the materials scientist said to Patta, “because I know that life is for us.”
The fact that plastic does not sink is exactly what fascinated Matee.
“I came across this concept of using plastic [make] Building blocks, “she explained.
Tons of plastic clogs drain, pollute rivers and contaminate animal feed in the area, and some of it ends up in the Dandora landfill. The site reached its capacity and should have been shut down 20 years ago.
But every day garbage collectors trudge through the rancid rubbish looking for plastic. It was not easy for Matee to find out if she could really turn the waste material into usable building blocks.
When it finally worked, “it was the best day ever,” she said to Patta. “It took us about nine months to make just one stone.”
One stone wasn’t enough, but that wasn’t a problem for a woman who likes to get her hands dirty. Next, she built a machine to mass-produce the plastic bricks.
First, the trash is sorted to remove debris and metal, and then the plastic is baked – just like “making cookies,” joked Matee – before shaping the cooking mixture into building blocks. Your setup can produce up to 2,000 per day and they are 35% cheaper than standard bricks and up to seven times stronger.
At the moment, Matees bricks are only used for pathways in small households, but she wants to appeal to large construction companies.
Kenya’s fight against plastic pollution is not just a local issue. To make matters worse, two years ago the US exported more than a billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 countries, including Kenya. Washington now wants to make the delivery of more plastic waste a condition of a planned trade deal.
Greenpeace activist Amos Wemanya believes that Kenya can barely manage its own waste, let alone recycle America’s.
“There would be more problems if we allowed this US-Kenya trade agreement to be used to land plastic waste on the African continent,” he told CBS News.
Matee agrees that countries should keep their trash in their own backyards, and she intends to make amends for what she calls her triple threat:
“The more we recycle the plastic, the more we produce affordable housing … the more we have created more jobs for the youth,” she said.
Like many young Kenyans, Matee is passionate about the environment, but it’s not just words. She hopes that her actions will turn the mountain in Dandora into a mere hill.