This article considers the use of plastic brick manufacture in order to aid in tackling two crises facing many African regions: housing shortages and waste management.
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The manufacturing of plastic bricks is not complicated or machinery intensive. The process begins by filtering coarse aggregates to remove impurities that would cause faults in the brick. Then, the coarse aggregates are mixed with the plastic waste which is finely chopped into pieces. The mixture is put into a brick mold, then heated to a high temperature, and once the brick is compressed it is left to cool.
Understanding Africa’s Housing Crisis Due to Urbanization
Over the next four decades, the rapid growth of population across the continent of Africa is expected to continue. From the years 1950 to 2015, the average growth rate annually was 2.53%, with the population in 2015 reaching approximately 1.18 billion.
The world has seen a strong trend of urbanization, and this does not exclude the nations belonging to Africa. Although the majority of Africa’s population, above 60%, live in rural areas, the average urbanization rate between 2000 and 2015 was 3.5%. Surprisingly this is the highest rate in the world and is only expected to increase to above 50% by 2037.
The trend of rapid urbanization has created pressure on the housing market that is lagging in development. Many cities only have urban plans from the colonial era and often do not consider economic, social, and demographic changes made over the past decades.
As a result, housing deficits have grown and there is increased pressure on urban infrastructure and resources. Affordable housing presents additional challenges, as already expensive construction materials and infrastructure have increased without practices of conventional housing finance.
More on Repurposing Waste: How Mining Waste Can be Utilized for Concrete Production
Current Waste Management Practices in Africa
Further challenges associated with urbanization and rapid population growth are the considerable strain on waste management. The continent generated 125 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2012, and this figure is set to double by the year 2025. This issue is mostly because the waste collection services in most parts of Africa are inadequate, with an average collection rate of only 56%.
More than 90% of the generated waste is dumped in unmaintained and uncontrolled landfills or dumpsites. In sub-Saharan Africa, 19 out of 50 of the world's biggest dumpsites can be found.
The importance of recycling has emerged across Africa as a means to assist with unemployment and poverty. Approximately 70%-80% of the waste generated is recyclable, though only just 4% is currently being recycled. Recycling has the potential to create significant social and economic opportunities for Africa. Diverting waste and realizing the opportunity for secondary resources could boost the economy by $8 billion.
Recycled Plastic Brick Factory in Côte d'Ivoire is Africa’s First
More than 280 tons of plastic waste is produced daily in the largest city of Côte d'Ivoire, Abidjan, though only 5% is recycled. The remaining waste ends up in uncontrolled landfills in low-income communities. This landfill is responsible for 60% of diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria cases in children and these diseases are the leading causes of death of children.
In Côte d'Ivoire, UNICEF has partnered with a Colombian social enterprise Conceptos Plasticos to create a first-of-its-kind, cutting edge, and scalable factory. The company can convert collected plastic waste into modular plastic bricks that are easily assembled, low cost, and durable. The innovative technology will be used to build much-needed classrooms in West African countries.
The factory will not only recycle 9600 tons of plastic waste yearly but will also provide a source of income for women living in poverty.
The bricks will be fire resistant and made out of 100% recycled plastic. They will be 20% lighter, 40% cheaper, and are more durable compared to conventional building materials. They are also designed to be well insulated, waterproof, and resistant to heavy wind.
Bringing Plastic Bricks to Kenya
Other initiatives such as the Gjenge Makers in Kenya, spearheaded by Nzambi Matee, are also utilizing plastic brick technology to produce affordable building materials. Their initiative is recognized by the UN Environmental Program, demonstrating its recognizable significance to directly addressing regional issues:
Plastic bricks in Kenya - NZAMBI MATEE - Young Champion of the Earth 2020 for Africa
Video Credit: UN Environment Programme/Youtube
Opportunity to Address Housing and Pollution in Nigeria
Nigeria produces 2.5 million tons of recyclable plastic waste yearly with 2.7% of this waste entering the ocean. In conjunction, the country is facing a significant housing deficit with 24 million of the nation's 200 million population currently homeless.
The winners of the 2020 global enterprise experience business competition created the company EnviroBricks, centered on addressing pollution and housing in Nigeria. The international student team worked in line with the United Nations sustainable development goals, specifically goal 8. The use of recycled brick could tackle two of the nation's problems, by providing affordable, durable, and environmentally friendly homes for low-income families in Lagos and improving the waste management problem.
Plastic bricks are reusing non-biodegradable plastic waste. They assist in sustainably disposing of plastic waste and are also economically valuable. The long-lasting and robust characteristics of plastic make it ideal for construction applications. There is potential for numerous applications such as brick road pavement and tiles, and being economically valuable will make these more desirable.
Though plastic has numerous desirable characteristics and applications, it has several drawbacks. For example, photo-degradation makes the plastic brick vulnerable and fragile. This has the potential to lead to breakage and subsequently release micro-plastic in the environment which is harmful to both humans and animals.
Furthermore, plastic bricks have been criticized as not being the optimal or long-term solution to effectively solve the plastic epidemic. Many people consider the process as a delay tactic, not the solution.
Without knowledge of future risks, it is hard to determine whether plastic bricks provide an adequate solution for housing the many homeless in Africa, or become more harmful to the environment.
References and Further Reading
Bah, E., Faye, I. and Geh, Z. (2018) "The Housing Sector in Africa: Setting the Scene", Housing Market Dynamics in Africa, pp. 1-21. doi: 10.1057/978-1-137-59792-2_1. http://housingfinanceafrica.org/app/uploads/HOUSING-MARKET-DYNAMICS-IN-AFRICA.pdf
Africa’s Urban Housing Crisis | Think Global Health (2021). Available at: https://www.thinkglobalhealth.org/article/africas-urban-housing-crisis
Waita, E. (2021) Kenyan recycles plastic waste into bricks stronger than concrete, U.S.. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kenya-environment-recycling-idUSKBN2A211N
Victoria University of Wellington (2020). Reducing waste in Nigeria with plastic bricks | Wellington School of Business and Government | Available at: https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/business/about/news/2020/reducing-waste-in-nigeria-with-plastic-bricks
UNICEF breaks ground on Africa’s first-of-its-kind recycled plastic brick factory in Côte d'Ivoire (2021). Available at: https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/unicef-breaks-ground-africas-first-its-kind-recycled-plastic-brick-factory-c%C3%B4te
BE FORWARD (2021).The advantages and disadvantages of eco-bricks | REAL ESTATE ZAMBIA | Available at: https://real-estate-zambia.beforward.jp/2021/08/01/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-eco-bricks/