An innovative engineer has found an ingenious solution for waste byproduct left over after recycling.
In Nairobi, Kenya, Nzambi Matee—a young materials engineer—has founded a company called Gjenge Makers that turns unrecyclable plastic waste into bricks.
Her project goes beyond a commendable work of female genius or an “eco-sustainable business.” The idea of this young woman is to use one problem to solve another, “turning trash into cash,” as she says in a UN video.
Matee uses the “waste of waste,” that is, plastic waste that industries can no longer recycle. From this, she creates bricks whose strength surpasses those made of concrete.
From waste to a huge gain
Nairobi produces 500 tons of plastic waste every day. Cities in the rest of the world are not far behind this disturbing figure.
As much as the mantra of recycling has become familiar in our day-to-day lives, sometimes as little more than a refrain, there are inevitably some materials that reach the apparent end of their cycle of utility.
“There is that waste they cannot process anymore; they cannot recycle. That is what we get,” says Matee to Reuters.
There’s a fundamental problem: the sheer volume of plastic waste that accumulates every day. But there’s also another problem: It costs companies money to get rid of plastic waste that can no longer be recycled.
Kenya is a country where making a living is not easy for much of the population. Nzambi Matee’s genius blossoms here.
Her company takes this apparently useless plastic waste—some of it they get for free, and some they buy. Gjenge Makers mixes this “useless” material with sand and melts the mixture, molding it into bricks. Since plastic is a polymer, Matee explains in a video shared by Reuters, it holds together well and is less brittle than cement.
Brick on brick
In the last three years, Nzambi Matee’s project has grown and received international awards. Even the design of the machines to make these new plastic bricks is the result of her talent and engineering skills.
Let’s start with the product. Today, Gjenge Makers produces 1,000 to 1,500 bricks a day. They weigh half as much as a concrete brick, which makes them easier and cheaper to transport. For now they’ve been used primarily for paving, but Gjenge Makers is also starting production of bricks for construction.
With her idea, Nzambi managed to found a company that today employs 110 people. She estimates that since the company’s founding, 20 tons of plastic waste have been recycled into bricks.
A house built from what has been rejected
What struck me the most in Nzambi Matee’s story is that she doesn’t just use waste, but the waste of waste. Thinking about those plastic scraps that no longer can be recycled is emblematic.
Thanks in part to the pope, our world today is looking at waste with renewed interest. There is a lot of buzz about ideas related to recycling and reuse.
We’re getting better at finding uses for things we might have rejected or thrown away in the past, at least when dealing with material goods.
On the human side, we’re not as appreciative of what is not considered “prime” material. When what is considered “useless” or “unproductive” is fragile and not very photogenic, when a human life carries side effects that are considered overwhelming … well, our zeal to get involved in appreciating their value is still weak.
Therefore, there’s something about the idea of a house built with bricks made from discarded materials that speaks of the soul and not only of material construction. Who would build with what’s discarded?
If I look at myself, should I not be grateful that I have been taken in by a Father who starts his construction site all over again every day and builds load-bearing walls by taking from me what I’ve already thrown in the trash?