Young scientist and entrepreneur Nzambi Matee turned plastic waste into construction bricks.
Kenya has a huge plastic waste problem. A 2015 report found that the Kenyan capital Nairobi produced around 400 tons of plastic waste every day. Yet, less than half of that had been recycled. Despite outlawing single-use plastics in 2017, the country is still drowning in them. The Dandora landfill, located in the heart of the Nairobi slums, currently receives more than 2000 metric tons of waste daily. The problem has only become more severe as the United States has been exporting more than 1 billion pounds of plastic waste to 96 nations, including Kenya, since 2019.
Where people find this a health and environmental hazard, young materials scientist Nzambi Matee saw a potential solution. She was intrigued by how plastic doesn’t sink and decided to recycle plastic waste products and remake them into useable building bricks.
Matee quit her job as an oil industry engineer and began experimenting with sand and plastic combinations in her mother’s backyard. Eventually, Matee attained a scholarship to study in the materials lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, which gave her the resources she needed to develop a prototype for the machine that now produces the recycled bricks.
In 2018, Matee launched her company Gjenge Makers. She and her team source much of the plastic products from factories and recyclers. The plastics they collect include high-density polythene, mostly found in milk bottles; low-density polythene, often used for sandwich bags; and polypropylene, commonly used in ropes and buckets. The plastics are then mixed with sand and compressed under high heat into bricks, which are 35% cheaper and seven times more durable than traditional concrete.
Matee has successfully transformed her backyard experiment into a social enterprise that provided bricks for construction projects and offered employment opportunities for the youth.
But she’s nowhere done yet. She is tired of waiting for the government to act and hopes to further expand her business so that she could recycle more plastic, produce more affordable housing, create more employment for the youth and support more young female entrepreneurs.
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