Turning trash into building blocks for children's futures

Côte d'Ivoire’s innovative project to transform plastic waste into construction materials for new schools.

By Henry Fersko
A girl playing in a landfill, Côte D'Ivoire
06 September 2018

GONZAGUEVILLE, Côte d'Ivoire, 6 September 2018 – Every day, Côte d'Ivoire’s economic capital of Abidjan produces 288 tonnes of plastic waste, most of which ends up in landfills in low-income communities like Gonzagueville, polluting the air, land, sea and children’s playgrounds. Only about 5% is recycled, mostly informally by women like Adja who take it from landfills and sell it at very low prices.

“Sometimes plastic is not selling well and we have to store it in our houses for weeks. Our children get sick because of this, but we don’t have any other option except waiting till the price rises again,” says the mother of three.

Improper waste management is responsible for 60% of malaria, diarrhoea, and pneumonia cases in children – diseases that are among the leading causes of death for children in Côte d'Ivoire and many other countries around the world. Air pollution caused by plastic incineration leads to respiratory infections. The plastic stored in homes is often not sanitized, making it easier for diseases to spread. The pollution of groundwater exacerbates existing hygiene and sanitation challenges. And plastic waste blocks drainage systems, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

“There is so much trash everywhere – we honestly don’t know what to do. And our kids are getting sick because of it.”

For many women, the job is a last resort.

“There were no jobs and we had to feed ourselves, we had to feed our kids,” says Boronema, a 28-year-old mother of four. She often has to bring her younger children with her to the landfill because she cannot afford to leave them at daycare and there are no schools nearby.

“What we are trying to do is struggle to make ends meet so our children don’t have to do the same jobs as us,” Adja says.

A woman looks in the distance, Côte D'Ivoire
UNICEF Côte D'Ivoire/2018/Bhandari
Adja is 30 years old and has three kids. She walks 3 kilometers to the landfill everyday to pick up plastic waste. Selling it can prove challenging, sometimes taking weeks.

Opportunity through education

A quality education could help these children break the cycle of poverty by opening the gateway to new job opportunities. But waste pickers are often unable to earn enough to send their children to school. Over 800,000 of the children who are out of school in Côte d'Ivoire come from households living in poverty. In addition, there are simply not enough schools, so classrooms are overcrowded, with an average class at double to triple capacity for low-income students.

“We are working in very [strenuous] conditions,” says a local teacher. “It’s like a pen of children. We need more classrooms.”

Children packed into a classroom, Côte d'Ivoire
UNICEF Côte D'Ivoire/2018/Bhandari
Children packed tightly into a classroom in Gonzagueville, Côte d'Ivoire. Because there are not enough schools and classrooms an average class size is normally at double to triple capacity for low-income students.

Transforming plastic waste into building materials for classrooms

To meet these challenges, UNICEF has set its sights on a bold objective: transform all plastic waste into building materials for classrooms. Conceptos Plasticos, a Colombian social enterprise, has developed a technique to make bricks out of non-PVC plastics that are cheaper, lighter and more durable than conventional bricks.

Africa’s first recycled plastic classroom was built earlier this year in Gonzagueville, and classes will start this month. It was built in just five days – a stark contrast to the nine months and extensive training it takes to build a classroom using traditional construction methods.

The lego-style plastic bricks were assembled into a classroom using only a hammer, with no prior training required. It also cost 40% less than traditional classrooms

Children gather around the outside of a school, Côte d'Ivoire
UNICEF Côte D'Ivoire/2018/Bhandari
Children gather outside of Africa's first recycled plastic classroom in Gonzagueville. The pilot project was the first step towards the larger goal of recycling thousands of tonnes of Côte d'Ivoire's plastic waste to build more classrooms for low-income children.

Forty kindergarten students, most of whom are living below the poverty line and have never been in a classroom with less than 80 people, will start school in the plastic classroom this month. As a pilot, it was constructed using plastic bricks bought from Conceptos Plasticos, but UNICEF plans to begin production in Côte d'Ivoire in order to realize its broader objective.

Finding innovative uses for plastic will become imperative to public health.

By 2019, UNICEF’s goal is to recycle 4,800 tonnes of plastic waste a year, build 30 classrooms to accommodate 1,500 children, empower 1,000 mothers in poverty by formalizing the recycling market, and expand to three additional countries. Much of this depends on whether UNICEF’s team in in Côte d'Ivoire can raise the funds to build a factory there to localize production of the bricks (rather than sourcing them from Colombia).

UNICEF video
Million of tons of plastic pollution is thrown away each year. Find out how a community in Côte d'Ivoire is using it to build a better world for their children.
Creating new markets for recycled plastic

Research suggests that over the next 30 years, the world may produce four times more plastic than we ever have before. Finding innovative uses for plastic will become imperative to public health. Without plastic waste management, groundwater pollution may leave many communities without access to clean water. Plastic-clogged drains could continue to cause flooding and damage infrastructure. And air pollution from burning trash will pose major environmental and health risks.

“This innovative approach of transforming plastic waste into construction bricks has a potential to turn a plastic waste management challenge into an opportunity, by addressing the right access to education with the construction of schools, empowering these communities and cleaning the environment at the same time," says UNICEF Innovation specialist Norman Muhwezi, who is leading the project.

Because of their cost-effectiveness, durability, and ease-of-assembly, bricks made from 100% plastic waste have the potential to disrupt the conventional construction model and catalyze a market for recycled plastic worldwide. Millions of waste pickers working informally in landfills and on city streets around the world could become key waste management partners – elevated out of poverty as they help clean our planet, and provide building blocks for the futures of our children.