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WN&YC: Discover the heavy toll of plastic and the solution innovators helping to subside the problem

Updated: May 22, 2023

Globally, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used annually.


In this fourth episode of What's Now & Yet to Come," show host, Julia Ann Dudley N. reiterates the plastic problem: If historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050, according to the UN Environment Programme. Dudley Najieb then reviews some of the solutions people and businesses are using with plastic waste.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, only a small amount of plastic was produced, and as a result, plastic waste was relatively manageable. However between the 1970s and the 1990s, plastic waste generation more than tripled, reflecting a similar rise in plastic production.

Our planet is choking on plastic It is time to change how we produce, consume and dispose of the plastic we use.

According to the UN Environment Programme, in the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years. Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use plastic products — with severe environmental, social, economic and health consequences.

Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away.

Approximately 36 percent of all plastics produced are used in packaging, including single-use plastic products for food and beverage containers, approximately 85 percent of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.

Additionally, some 98 percent of single-use plastic products are produced from fossil fuel, or "virgin" feedstock. The level of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of conventional fossil fuel-based plastics is forecast to grow to 19 per cent of the global carbon budget by 2040.

These single-use plastic products are everywhere. For many of us, they have become an integral part of our daily lives.

Plastics including microplastics are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are becoming part of the Earth's fossil record and a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They have even given their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the "plastisphere".

Rivers and lakes carry plastic waste from deep inland to the sea, making them major contributors to ocean pollution

Despite current efforts, it is estimated that 75 to 199 million tonnes of plastic is currently found in our oceans. Unless we change how we produce, use and dispose of plastic, the amount of plastic waste entering aquatic ecosystems could nearly triple from 9-14 million tonnes per year in 2016 to a projected 23-37 million tonnes per year by 2040. How does it get there? A lot of it comes from the world's rivers, which serve as direct conduits of trash into lakes and the ocean.

A novel solution: looking at Africa as an example on how to reuse plastic

Gjenge Makers Ltd is a sustainable, alternative and affordable, building products manufacturing company. Gjenge Makers has cut a niche as a manufacturing trailblazer in the provision of beautiful and sustainable alternative building materials. Currently they are producing eco-friendly pavers that are made of a composite of recycled waste plastic and sand.

So where did this company begin?

Nzambi Matee’s small workshop in Nairobi, Kenya is chock-a-block with metal pipes and machine cogs.

It may seem chaotic to outsiders but the 29-year-old Matee, an inventor and entrepreneur, is at home here. This is where she developed the prototype for a machine that turns discarded plastic into paving stones – an invention that underpins her company, Gjenge Makers.

Each day, the business churns out 1,500 plastic pavers, which are prized by schools and homeowners because they are both durable and affordable. Gjenge Makers is also giving a second life to plastic bottles and other containers which would otherwise end up in landfills or, worse, on Nairobi’s streets.

“It is absurd that we still have this problem of providing decent shelter – a basic human need,” said Matee. “Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood. The potential is enormous, but its after life can be disastrous.”

Gjenge pavers are fully certified by the Kenyan Bureau of Standards. They have a melting point over 350°C, and they are much stronger than their concrete equivalents.

In 2017, Matee quit her job as a data analyst and set up a small lab in her mother’s back yard. There, she began creating and testing pavers, which are a combination of plastic and sand. The neighbours complained about the noisy machine she was using, so Matee pleaded for one year’s grace to develop the right ratios for her paving bricks.

“I shut down my social life for a year, and put all my savings into this,” she said. “My friends were worried.”

Through trial and error, she and her team learned that some plastics bind together better than others. Her project was given a boost when Matee won a scholarship to attend a social entrepreneurship training programme in the United States of America. With her paver samples packed in her luggage, she used the material labs in the University of Colorado Boulder to further test and refine the ratios of sand to plastic.

Matee also used this opportunity to develop the machinery she would use to make the bricks. “Once we know how to make one paver, we need to know how to make 1,000 pavers,” she explained.

Matee recalls the first time she produced a full batch of recycled plastic pavers. “It was the best day ever!” she exclaimed. “This was three years of hard work. I quit my job. I put all my savings into this. I became so broke that everyone thought I was crazy and so many people told me to give up.”

One of the schools that uses pavers is the Mukuru Skills Training Centre in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kyaba slum. Its playground and the paths between classrooms are covered by Matee’s colourful paving stones. (Before the pavers, students walked on dirt paths.)

“We plan to pave all around the school,” said programme coordinator Anne Muthoni. “It’s a cheaper solution and we are grateful to Nzambi. Young people need to be motivated and sensitized about how to care for the environment, while at the same time making money.”

Matee encourages other young people to tackle environmental challenges at the local level. “The negative impact we are having on the environment is huge,” said Matee. “It’s up to us to make this reality better. Start with whatever local solution you can find and be consistent with it. The results will be amazing.”

For her work, Matee was recently named a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The award provides seed funding and mentorship to promising environmentalists as they tackle the world's most pressing challenges.

“We must rethink how we manufacture industrial products and deal with them at the end of their useful life,” said Soraya Smaoun, who specializes in industrial production techniques with UNEP. “Nzambi Matee’s innovation in the construction sector highlights the economic and environmental opportunities when we move from a linear economy, where products, once used, are discarded, to a circular one, where products and materials continue in the system for as long as possible.”


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