Turning trash into treasure: meet 30-year-old Kenyan Materials Engineer, Nzambi Matee

by Joseph Omoniyi
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One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But in the case of Nzambi Matee, a 29-year-old Materials Engineer, its paver bricks. Matee is the founder of Nairobi-based Gjenge Makers, which has founded a novel way of converting plastic waste into sustainable materials. She has created lightweight and low-cost bricks made of recycled plastic with sand—a stronger material than concrete.

Matee recently won the Young Champion of the Earth 2020 award, the United Nations’ highest environmental honour. The award recognises seasoned environmental leaders who’s actions have a transformative impact on the environment. “I wanted to use my education in applied physics and materials engineering to do something about the problem of plastic waste pollution. But I was very clear that the solution had to be practical (living in Kenya practicality is everything), sustainable and affordable. The best way to do this was by channeling the waste into the construction/building space and finding the most efficient and affordable material to build homes,” says Matee who’s company Gjenge Makers has so far recycled 20 metric tons of plastic waste and is looking to push that value to 50 by the end of next financial year. The bricks are ideal for building walls, paving driveways and other construction needs. The startup has generated 112 job opportunities for garbage collectors, women and youth groups.

Matee collects industrial and consumer plastic waste that cannot be reprocessed or recycled. These include high-density polyethylene used in shampoo and milk bottles; polypropylene used for flip-top lids, buckets and rope; and low-density polyethylene used as bags. The plastic is then mixed with sand, heated at very high temperature and compressed into beautiful bricks that vary in colour and thickness.

Gjenge pavers are not just stronger and lighter than concrete blocks, they hold twice the weight threshold of conventional concrete blocks. “Using plastic as a binding agent makes the blocks more sturdy and less brittle. A regular brick has sand, ballast, cement and water. All these elements have a weight implication whereas our paver blocks only have sand or ballast and plastic. This makes it lighter. They are 30 per cent cheaper than regular bricks as we use the lowest quality of plastic discarded by factories after manufacturing plastic products.” Matee worked on the idea for four years before starting production in 2020. She was also involved in the design, execution and fabrication of the machines that manufacture these blocks.

The toughest part of the journey for Matee was making the first brick. “We had to figure out how to make the first brick to be able to show people what we were talking about. It was not the best brick but it proved our concept. Once we made the first one we went around showing and talking to people about setting up the machinery to make these bricks. There were countless rejections. People wouldn’t even listen to the idea before rejecting it. But I stuck to the concept. I knew I just needed one person to believe in the idea,” says Mattee who produces 1,500 bricks a day. She hopes to someday add another big production line in order to triple capacity.

Via AD India

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