The plastic waste crisis is one of the biggest challenges the world faces today. When it was first developed over 100 years ago, plastic was seen as a miracle material — and in some ways has made modern life possible. Globally, the production of plastic exceeds that of steel and the times we live in have even been dubbed ‘The Plastic Age’ by scientists.

So how has this miracle material turned into nature’s nightmare? Simply put, the world is being swamped by mountains of disposed plastic — 40% of which, shockingly, is used only once. The facts and figures make disturbing reading:

  • Only around 9% of all the plastic ever made has likely been recycled
  • Nearly half of all the plastic ever manufactured has been made since 2000
  • Less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled globally
  • Nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute around the world
  • 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans from coastal regions every year.

As you can see, the statistics are alarming, but there is hope. Corporations and individuals around the world are changing the ways they consume plastic, and more importantly using the plastic that already exists in innovative new ways.

One such innovative thinker is Nzambi Mattee, a 29 year old Material Engineer from Kenya. Matee is the founder and Chief Executive of Gjenge Makers, a Nairobi-based firm turning waste plastic into alternative, low-cost building materials such as building blocks, tiles and manhole covers. Nzambi is one of the new generation of entrepreneurs striving to make their communities more sustainable and eco-friendly — and she had a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve.

A serial entrepreneur, Nzambi is a self-taught Hardware Designer and Mechanical Engineer with a background in physics and material engineering. With a passion for creating sustainable solutions, she used her creative thinking to start Gjenge Makers, with the mission to convert plastic waste into lower cost alternative building products. This innovative thinking means Nzambi is tackling both plastic waste pollution and Kenya’s housing problem — but of course, she’s a clever business woman too and likes to quote a simple mantra: “Let’s turn trash into cash”.

Gjenge Makers is a trailblazer in the production of alternative, sustainable building materials and Nzambi was among seven global winners of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Young Champions of the Earth Prize for 2020.

Here she explains the business process in more detail:

Currently we are producing eco-friendly pavers that are made of a composite of recycled waste plastic and sand. We have partnered with different manufacturers of plastics, bottle tops and seals in the beverage and pharmaceutical industries here in Kenya, from whom we collect offcuts and scraps. This is amalgamated with discarded single use plastics that our informal waste collectors deliver to us, which we jointly use to produce the pavers, while providing them with a stable income. We have financially empowered over 112 individuals, the majority of whom are women and youth groups who are our partners in supplying the waste plastic and the pre-processing stage of our production process”.

Nzambi does have one problem though, but it’s one that any business would be happy with — demand outweighs supply at the moment. To date, they produce around 500-1000 bricks per day, recycling close to 500 kilograms of plastic in the process. This low production capacity is the greatest challenge they face in this burgeoning industry space of alternative and sustainable building products.

With Nairobi currently producing around 500 metric tonnes of plastic waste per day, with only a fraction of it recycled, Nzambi is not short of the raw materials required for production. Now it’s about scaling up the business to meet demand and produce a wider range of affordable sustainable building products. But if anyone can take on this challenge, it’s the fearless Nzambi Matte, who is proof that one person can make a difference. In a quote that will inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, Nzambi explains her bold approach to business:

I really jumped in, off a cliff, without even a parachute...I was building it as I was falling down. But isn’t that how great things are done?"


SOURCE: LAURA PARKER, National Geographic

SOURCE: Author unknown, UNEP