Making Friends With Plastic Trash for a Better Planet

Photo: Maciej Sudra, via UNEP

With eight million tonnes of plastic entering the ocean ever year, innovation is critical to find new approaches to waste management, especially as the world looks to build back better after COVID-19.

A group of students in Kenya took on this challenge and created “Plastiki Rafiki” (Swahili for ‘Friendly Plastic’) – an initiative that is making plastic waste work for the economy and the ocean.

In 2017, Kenya’s government enforced a landmark ban on single-use plastic bags, a big step towards slasing plastic pollution. Three years later, however, the fight is far from over. Flip-flops, plastic straws, and food wrappers are amongst the discarded items that overwhelm Kenya’s shores and threaten coastal life. Some plastic are be re-used, reduced and recycled, but a great deal of plastic waste that is collected often ends up in landfills, where it is incinerated- resulting in dangerous levels of air pollution.

The students from the International School of Kenya, who launched ‘Plastiki Rafiki’, believe that through innovation, education, and creativity, plastic trash can be transformed into useful products.

Photo: Maciej Sudra, via UNEP

‘We can show the value of plastic. It’s not just rubbish – you can make something with it,’ said Maciej Sudra, the school’s engineering teacher.

Plastiki Rafiki started in 2018 as a school club that explored engineering solutions to global challenges. Using open source blueprints from organizations such as Precious Plastic, they adapted machines like plastic shredders so that they could be easily manufactured in Kenya. The students now also learn how to design and sell their own products from recycled plastic, from skateboards to toy bats and balls. Profits are used towards setting up grassroots plastic recycling workshop, so the initiative can be replicated in other areas by local communities.

Many of the products can be traced directly to where the waste was collected. For example, when the students were climbing Mount Kenya, they collected rubbish along the way, and brought it back to be made into products. Giving consumers information about the origin of their product raises awareness of the plastic pollution problem across the country. They are also reminded that though single-use plastic is used once, it can continue to pollute areas of natural beauty for many years.

In February 2019, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Clean Seas campaign teamed up with another innovation to address plastic pollution – Flipflopi. Flipflopi is a nine metre dhow boat made entirely from plastic waste. It voyaged from Lamu to Zanzibar to spread awareness about the way that plastic can be repurposed into a useful material. This awareness is sparking action. This World Environment Day (June 5) the Kenyan government announced that single use plastics would be banned in protected areas across the country.

Photo: Maciej Sudra, via UNEP

In March 2021, Plastiki Rafiki will join Flipflopi’s Lake Victoria voyage, working with lakeside communities and fishing villages to create useful products like fishing equipment and sailing tools from plastic waste. They will also run workshops to teach community members how to collect and transform plastic waste. Through this initiative, Plastiki Rafiki hopes that the plastic pollution that currently hinders the local economy can positively contribute to it.

In the future, Plastiki Rafiki hopes to run off-grid recycling projects to empower communities who may not have access to electricity but do have access to plastic waste. These initiatives will use techniques such as bicycle powered shredders and biogas compressors with seaweed as the fueling agent.

UNEP’s Head of Advocacy, Atif Butt said, “Plastiki Rafiki and Flipflopi demonstrate the importance of creative thinking when solving environmental challenges. Through innovative approaches that take into account social context, plastic pollution can be transformed into a useful material that benefits local communities and the planet.”

Source: UNEP