Rebuilding Ebola-hit economy, one plastic brick at a time

Men and women collect and sort plastic waste that can be turned into marketable goods such as plastic bricks. In Sierra Leone, Living Earth runs the Waste to Wealth program that trains locals to collect garbage and convert it into income-generating products. Photo by: Living Earth

Africa’s population is set to double from 1.2 billion this year to 2.4 billion by 2050, according to UNICEF research, resulting in a surge in waste creation. In a continent where only around half of rubbish is collected and disposed of in a managed way, the need to implement safe and environmentally friendly waste disposal solutions is critical.

In Sierra Leone, U.K. charity Living Earth has been tackling this issue through a scheme that trains locals to collect domestic rubbish and convert it into income-generating products. Based in the northern city of Makeni, the Waste to Wealth, or W2W, program is run in cooperation with the City Council, funded initially by the U.K. Department for International Development, and more recently by the U.N. Development Program. Started in 2013, it has resulted in the creation of Sierra Leone’s first official recycling center, and the establishment of five enterprises that convert waste into marketable goods.

The charity estimates Makeni’s residents produce about 115 tons of rubbish a day. However, the City Council’s resources for waste collection are limited, with less than 10 percent of household waste reaching the municipal dump site. Waste lining the streets, being burned outside houses or clogging up storm drains causes social, health and environmental problems. These include the spread of waterborne diseases or those passed on by vermin such as rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes. Environmental problems caused by the waste include flooding and air pollution when the waste is burned.

To minimize these impacts, Living Earth invited locals to take part in training that would enable them to gather waste lying in the streets and convert it into products they could sell to make a living. The five business opportunities were to make plastic bricks, briquettes, plastic weaving, energy efficient cookstoves and composting.

Turning waste into a business plan

To date, one of the project’s greatest successes has come from the teams making plastic bricks. Living Earth Technical Adviser Alex Farrington said the technology for the bricks had been tested previously in a similar project run by the charity in Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda. But it is relatively unused and unknown around the globe.

So how does it work? It involves melting used plastics, such as the soft plastic used to package drinking water. The packages are burned in a drum fire and mixed with sand. The substance is then poured into metal molds, where it dries almost instantly. The process is much faster than making concrete bricks, which can take days to dry.

“When you consider the high cost of concrete, this offers a really low-cost alternative,” Farrington said.

The bricks program in Makeni involved 15 unskilled, unemployed men who received five days of practical training in making the bricks. The project aims to create stand-alone businesses that will operate into the future without charitable support. For this reason, the men also received five days of business training on how to write business plans, and how to market and sell their product.

“It’s tough to train people with low literacy in something like marketing,” Farrington said. “To do it, we recruited a Sierra Leonean marketing expert who had his own recycling company that made bags and handicrafts — he was very switched on and understood how to sell. As a result, the participants now talk in a way that shows they’re aware of the product.”

Living Earth also trained the men in health and safety, and provided masks and equipment to protect them from fumes released by the melted plastic.

“In Sierra Leone people weren’t worried about burning plastic without any protection, so we emphasized that anyone near the drum had to wear the protection,” Farrington added.

Beyond plastic bricks

The bricks enterprise is now operating from the recycling center. So far the interlocking bricks have mainly been used to pave compound courtyards. But Living Earth is exploring how the technology can be scaled up.

“The bricks could be used to build roads, especially in countries where the rains wash them away every year,” Farrington suggested. “If you get a crack in tarmac — water gets in and breaks it up. There’s nothing you can do except tear it up and start again. But with these, if water does get in, you take up that area and re-lay it.”

Living Earth is currently exploring the idea with Sierra Leone’s Roads Authority. DfID is also aiding by bringing samples of the bricks back to the U.K. for stress testing.

“We need to know if they will withstand 40 degrees Celsius sun beating down on them all day and then a truck driving over them,” Farrington said.

The enterprise is also exploring other uses for the technology, including making toilet slabs.

“Again, that’s something we need to make sure that the actual material itself is safe enough,” Farrington explained, adding that the bricks could eventually be used to build houses and drainage.

But production on such a level would require industrial-scale facilities, and Farrington pointed out that the fumes generated by such large production could cause an environmental hazard.

“There would be investment to build a factory,” he said. “You could quite easily industrialize something like this — it wouldn’t take complicated machinery — but it would still take fairly significant investment.”

Derailed by Ebola, but opportunity to rebuild

Despite restrictions on public gatherings and movement put in place in the country as a result of the Ebola epidemic, the bricks project continued to function throughout 2014. However some aspects of the W2W program had to be scaled back, including plans to set up a youth waste collection group. The Makeni City Council was also unable to work with the organization to establish a more formal W2W waste management plan, as its management staff had to focus resources on Ebola prevention.

With Ebola quarantine measures now being lifted by the government, Farrington believes the opportunities provided by the bricks enterprise could help Sierra Leoneans rebuild their economy. He pointed out that unlike many industries in the country, making the bricks does not rely on imports.

“The water companies that produce packet water are still functioning and people are still producing waste,” he said. “This is an opportunity to gather it and use it.”

In the future, he hopes the recycling center can establish a public-private waste-collection partnership with the council.

“It could be recognized that they are utilizing X amount of waste, that they can go into smaller communities where bigger waste trucks can’t go, and that puts them in a good position to be able to say, right, pay us to collect this waste, so they could have a dual income,” he suggested.

Are you working on an innovative recycling project, or have bright ideas for using discarded, modified or reclaimed products? Tell us more by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Gabriella jozwiak profile

    Gabriella Jóźwiak

    Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.