Plastic bricks made via a recycling process developed by a Colombian social enterprise are being used to help tackle a huge shortfall of classrooms in the West African nation of Ivory Coast.
Experts hope the environmentally friendly new technique will also provide more stable incomes for plastic waste collectors and contribute to reducing rates of serious illnesses in the country.
Nine model classrooms have already been set up in Ivory Coast (officially known by its French name, Côte d’Ivoire) by Conceptos Plásticos in partnership with UNICEF, the UN agency for children, at three test sites across the country. Built with bricks made from plastic salvaged from the streets of Bogotá, the showrooms have persuaded the Colombian company, Conceptos Plásticos, that what they are doing in Bogotá could be replicated elsewhere in West Africa.
Conceptos Plásticos’ plastic brick factory in Bogotá buys its material from 15,000 collectors, who work individually or in collectives. The company is now building a larger factory in Yopougon, a suburb of Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast. Abidjan alone churns out 300 tonnes of plastic waste a day, of which only around 5 percent is currently recycled, typically by female pickers, according to Sophie Chavanel, head of communications for UNICEF Côte d’Ivoire.
For their part, UNICEF staff are confronted with serious health issues for the country’s children: malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia. “We were looking for a way to fight plastic pollution that exacerbates diseases that can potentially kill children, mainly under 5 years old,” Chavanel told FRANCE 24.
Not only does plastic litter contribute to dirty water and associated illnesses, it also provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which carry malaria and can easily reproduce in rainwater collected in plastic detritus.
Five tonnes of plastic bricks, each around 50cm long and much lighter than other types of building block, are required to build a classroom. When the factory is at full capacity, its 9,200 tonnes of brick will be enough to build more than 1,800 classrooms a year. UNICEF has agreed to buy enough bricks from Conceptos Plásticos for over 500 classrooms.
UNICEF estimates the country will need 15,000 new classrooms by 2021 and 30,000 by 2025. Using the plastic brick technique is approximately a third cheaper than conventional construction.
In a poor section of Abidjan, parts of which were recently torn down by the government for development, the École Primaire Publique (EPP) de Gonzagueville (public primary school) in the Port Bouët district is hosting several model classrooms, including the first prototype, identical to the ones used in Colombia. When it was built, staff, children and parents were asked for their feedback and when the next classroom was built alongside it, a wooden structure was incorporated for the roof, allowing for improved airflow.
“When I’m in my own classroom, I really want to just be in here instead,” one student called Abigail said, referring to the model, “Because here it’s really nice, there’s lots of things, it’s well decorated.” Her traditional classroom is noticeably hotter inside, featuring rows of benches.
Sitting in the prototype classroom that serves as the school’s nursery (the only public nursery in the district), EPP Gonzagueville head teacher Tirangue Doumbia echoed her student. “They’re almost beyond comparison. They’re like night and day,” she said. “Teachers and pupils can move around in these rooms, which they can’t in the others. Some of the other classrooms have over 120 pupils,” says the teacher. “It’s difficult.”
While the classrooms are welcome, the school needs more, plus toilet blocks and child-sized toilets. For now, teachers have to hold the smallest children over the latrines to prevent them from falling in.
“There’s no problem finding teachers, it’s classrooms we need. Teachers are being trained all the time and some can even do rapid training courses to help us,” adds Doumbia.
Plastic classrooms can be built in just a couple of weeks using trained workers, since the bricks are put together without using cement. The result is cooler and sturdier than structures built with traditional building methods and does not require repointing after the rainy season. The plastic walls are non-toxic, since no PVC is allowed in the mix. They can be left bare or finished with plaster or wood and, unlike with concrete walls, hanging items or affixing shelving is a simpler task.
The bricks’ lightweight quality also means that in remote areas where truck delivery would be impossible, the bricks can be carried using animals or even by hand. The addition of solar panels means the rooms can be built wherever there is a need. Teaching staff will be provided by the government’s education ministry.
“For UNICEF it’s an innovative way to partner with the private sector. In this partnership, Conceptos Plásticos brings the technology to Côte d’Ivoire, employs people from Côte d’Ivoire, provides better income to women collecting the plastic and contributes to clean communities,” says UNICEF’s Chavanel.
Local plastic pickers are already being introduced to the innovative concept. Women are being approached, says Chavanel, because: “We know that when you empower women, when they have a better income, it often goes to their children.” Pickers currently earn around 1,000 FCFA (West African CFA francs) per day [approximately €1.50], but are at the mercy of middlemen. Currently, it’s difficult for pickers to determine which type of plastic middlemen will want to buy in a given week – flip flops, sheeting, or bottles.
“We set out at 5am,” says picker Mariam Coulibaly, surrounded by heaps of plastic each belonging to a different picker on a patch of wasteland in Abobo-Baoulé, Abidjan. “We’re back by 10am. then have to see to the housework, then sorting, going out again picking at night from 7 until around 9pm, when we head home. Every day.”
She hopes that when they can sell the plastic they collect directly to the factory, conditions will be better: “They’ve said we’ll be able to sell the things it’s hard to sell normally like broken buckets and plates, and they’ll take them quickly.” Coulibaly and the others in her cooperative each sell around 50kg of plastic per week, a figure which stands to increase, since the Conceptos Plásticos technique can employ any type of plastic.