Last year, Walid Bahsoon – a Sierra Leonean businessman, built a 60sqm bungalow out of 10 tonnes of plastic waste gathered from the streets of Sierra Leone’s capital city – Freetown. The house sits in his King Tom compound awaiting windows and a front door, with nothing at all to suggest its humble beginnings.
Waste plastic clogs Freetown
It is the result of one man’s passion to find a solution to the plastic pollution which shrink wraps Freetown, clogging our waterways, beaches and thoroughfares. As minimum viable product’s go, it’s certainly persuasive. Last year, it reached the finals of the Asia Pacific Housing Innovation Awards – an initiative to encourage new solutions to affordable, resilient housing.
Plastic – the second pandemic
It’s hard to imagine a world without plastic. It plays an essential role in our homes and workplaces. It has revolutionised the health sector.
Unfortunately, as it has become easier and cheaper to produce, it has become more disposable and this essential material has given to rise to an explosion of waste which is increasingly described as our second pandemic.
The statistics on plastic waste are sobering. Nearly half of all plastics used globally are only used once and make up 40 percent of the plastic produced each year. Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste, 91% of which has never been recycled, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science. More than eight million tonnes of it enters the world’s oceans each year, killing 100,000 sea animals. They get trapped in bigger items such as carrier bags or food packaging or mistake smaller pieces of plastic for food.
In Sierra Leone, where mudslides and regular flash floods are the human consequences of both accumulated waste and poor city planning, there is an urgent need for genuine solutions.
The limitations of plastic recycling
Conventional plastic recycling has its limitations, Walid Bahsoon explains. Only certain types of plastic can be recycled. These include PET (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), PP (polypropylene) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – which requires waste plastic to be sorted before recycling. This is labour intensive. Added to this, are low oil prices which bring down the cost of plastic. “There is a direct relationship between the cost of oil and the price of producing and recycling plastic. Plastic is made from several components, one of which is oil. This means that when the cost of a barrel of oil falls, the price of making plastic also decreases, making it cheaper to produce virgin plastic than use recycled plastic.” The high cost of electricity and the lack of off-takers within the country are additional barriers.
“Ninety percent of our plastic waste ends up in the dumpsites, or it’s burned. There is currently no viable alternative,” says Bahsoon. “There are no Government policies or initiatives to encourage entrepreneurs and a very limited local market for products made from recycled plastic.”
A commercial solution
And so, he set himself the challenge of finding a sustainable solution to plastic waste, with genuine commercial value.
The idea of reusing plastic waste in construction came to him, when he linked the plastic waste pandemic, with two other global challenges – a shortage of affordable housing and a shortage of jobs for young people
“These are problems common to Sierra Leone,” he says. “We need 280,000 more houses in the capital by 2028. We have a young population – 62.5% below 25 for whom we need to find jobs. We have a significant and growing plastic pollution problem – 90 tonnes generated per day.”
Further inspiration came from existing recycling businesses in Sierra Leone, which had already developed a basic process for mixing plastic and sand, to produce paving tiles. These paving tiles had found a ready market in the country. “I wanted to see if I could refine the process and use it to make blocks for construction,” says Bahsoon.
The potential of the circular economy
The resulting project – Plastic 2 Build – reflects the full potential of the circular economy. It creates a market for all types of plastic waste by producing building materials to be used for the construction of low-cost housing. It creates employment and will save local government millions in the collection and cleaning up of plastic litter. Furthermore, the technology has the advantage of being scalable, sustainable and environmentally friendly, with the potential to be exported to the sub-region.
It took time and experimentation to arrive at the right formula of river sand, plastic and gravel for the bricks. He was eventually satisfied, when a stress test proved that his solid blocks are stronger than the cement blocks usually used for construction in Sierra Leone.
With some upgrades to his equipment, Bahsoon was able to make 2000 blocks in 45 days. The same process also produced the roofing slabs for the small two bed villa. Then they began to build the house. “It was constructed in four months. The only cement we used was for the mortar,” he says.
The ‘Plastic 2 Build’ project has additional advantages
The house has already performed well over the course of a particularly long and wet rainy season. According to Bahsoon, the plastic waste blocks offer significant advantages over cement blocks, especially in the Sierra Leonean climate. They resist damp and have insulating properties, so the house doesn’t get as hot as houses built of cement blocks, he explains.
“The Plastic 2 Build project also has the potential to significantly boost livelihoods and increase employment opportunities, particularly in plastic waste collection,” Bahsoon says. He envisages a network of agents across Freetown, who will buy from existing formal and informal waste collectors.
His plan for scaling up ‘Plastic 2 Build’ could use up to 25% of Freetown’s daily plastic waste and manufacture enough blocks to build two houses a day. To get there, he needs buy-in: from construction companies willing to use his product; outlets to stock it; and crucially from the government in order to create a more enabling environment for recycling solutions.
In Sierra Leone, where there are so many competing priorities, it’s tempting to push our plastic waste problem to the bottom of the list. That would be a mistake. Pundits emphasise that a combination of circumstances including increasing intolerance for plastic waste in wealthier countries, low oil prices, coupled with China’s recent ban on the import of waste plastic, mean countries like ours will become the new target markets for cheap plastic products and plastic waste, unless we act now.
For more information on ‘Plastic 2 Build’, please contact Walid Bahsoon at Premier Enviro Solutions by WhatsApp on +232 79 940110 or by email – firstname.lastname@example.org