Building Blocks

Whether you are aware of it or not, the recycling system around the globe is flawed. Even when we think we’re doing our part to save the planet, much of our plastic is no longer used again and ends up in landfills. But there might be a solution: plastic bricks. No, this isn’t referring to the LEGOS you grew up playing with. Nzambi Matee, a 29-year-old woman in Kenya has developed plastic bricks made of recycled materials, an amazing product that will surely help the planet be more green by tackling the recycling problem head on. To help understand Nzambi’s solution, it’s important to understand the reasons why she was spurred to build it. 

Wait, So We’re the Baddies?!?

Imagine this hypothetical scenario. You are Bob. You’re an executive at XYZ Crude Oil Company Incorporated. You put your thinking cap on and ask yourself what the best way to improve your company image is, while also promoting one of your products that creates huge amounts of waste. Eureka! The answer is simple, just let people know that there’s no need to worry about using plastic since it can be recycled! Such a company is precisely what actual corporations like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, and DuPont did during the 1980s and 90s. These companies, and many others, began ad campaigns espousing the benefits of recycling. “The bottle may look empty, yet it’s anything but trash,” says one ad from 1990 showing a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck.

Companies spent millions of dollars on other similar ads, even though industry leaders knew that both technologically and economically, recycling most types of plastic just wasn’t feasible (and for the most part still isn’t). Plastic degrades over time so it can only be reused sparingly, plus different plastics can’t be mixed, so they need to be separated when they arrive at a recycling facility. If there’s any food, grease, or gunk on a piece of plastic, it can’t be recycled. Just imagine the life of a college student eating pizza and ramen noodles. Much of their plastic utensils, cardboard pizza boxes, and plastic ramen bowls are too dirty to be reused and recycled. As a result, over 90% of plastic does not get recycled, with most of it ending up in landfills or burned for energy. 

Brick by Brick

That’s where Nzambi comes in. Obviously there is a huge disconnect between what the public thinks and what the oil industry knows in regards to how plastic is recycled. But, there is hope for recycling to finally live up to its hype. Nzambi has devised a way to turn her country’s heaps of plastic waste into recycled bricks twice as strong as concrete. Truly amazing stuff! Her startup Gjenge Makers Ltd has so far been able to recycle over 20 tonnes of plastic waste, turning the junk into colorful and useful bricks. Because the bricks are made of superheated sand and plastic pressed into a mold, they are significantly lighter than your typical concrete paver. Check out how awesome they look!


Relatively poorer countries like Kenya receive huge amounts of plastic waste from richer countries like the United States who can’t process it all. For those countries, messy streets and harmful living conditions are all too common as a result. It’s quite awful. That’s why Nzambi’s solution is so amazing. It is an immediate solution to the piles of plastic that keep on getting dumped in her neighborhood and country. The main input for her operation is something people are desperate to get rid of, so the input cost for materials is quite low. Her operation shows that scalability to other countries is possible, something we should all cheer for!

So, What’s Next?
Nzambi’s startup is too small to tackle the entire plastic waste problem. But imagine a future with hundreds of other startups around the globe making bricks and other materials from plastic waste. Or the proliferation of other recycling innovations, such as optical recognition software to identify specific types of shapes and plastic varieties. Perhaps the push to recycle plastic started off as a way for oil companies to increase sales, but it doesn’t have to end that way. Startups like Gjenge Makers can help us build a more sustainable future, brick by brick.