Plastic waste is a little like electric cars. 10 years ago, we heard very little about either one. Today, there are news stories about both every day of the week.
The world is drowning in discarded plastic. Coca-Cola is the number one source of single use plastic bottles — spewing 200,000 of them into the environment every minute of every day. But it is just one of many companies that have been built by ignoring the damage its products cause. By some estimates, by 2050 the total weight of all the plastic waste in the oceans will be more than the weight of all the fish in the sea. But things are changing, albeit slowly.
Plastic Trash Becomes Plastic Bricks For Schools
In Abidjan, the commercial capitol of the Ivory Coast, almost 300 tons of plastic is discarded every day. Only about 5% of it is recycled. Yet the city and surrounding area have a critical shortage of classrooms. Conceptos Plásticos is a company in Columbia that makes plastic bricks out of plastic trash. In partnership with UNICEF, it has supplied enough bricks to make 9 new classrooms in Abidjan. It is building a new factory to manufacture its plastic bricks in Yopougon, a suburb of Abidjan.
When the factory is at full capacity, it will produce 9,200 tons of plastic bricks a year — enough to build more than 1,800 classrooms. UNICEF has agreed to buy enough bricks from Conceptos Plásticos for over 500 classrooms, according to France24. The bricks have several advantages over traditional bricks or concrete block. They are much lighter, which makes them easy to transport to remote locations. They can even be carried by mules or humans to places that are inaccessible to wheeled vehicles.
They cost about 1/3 less than bricks or cinder blocks, meaning cash-strapped governments and NGOs can build more classrooms and other structures with the money they have available. They use no mortar so they don’t need repointing regularly the way traditional bricks and concrete blocks do. They are a better insulator, so classrooms stay cooler. And they are non-toxic because no PVC is used to make them.
Recycling plastic trash has positive benefits for the health of local residents, especially children. The waste plastic is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can transmit diseases like malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia. Sophie Chavanel, head of communications for UNICEF in the Ivory Coast, tells France24, “We were looking for a way to fight plastic pollution that exacerbates diseases that can potentially kill children, mainly under 5 years old.”
Head teacher Tirangue Doumbia says the difference between a classroom made with plastic bricks and a traditional classroom is dramatic. “They’re almost beyond comparison. They’re like night and day. 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. It’s difficult. There’s no problem finding teachers, it’s classrooms we need,” she says.
Empowerment Of Women
Recycling plastic trash is creating opportunities for local women both in the Ivory Coast and in Columbia. “We know that when you empower women, when they have a better income, it often goes to their children,” Sophie Chavanel says. Pickers typically earn about €1.50 per day, but the work is not easy. “We set out at 5 am,” says picker Mariam Coulibaly. “We’re back by 10 am. then we 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.”
At the present time, the women are at the mercy of middlemen, but they hope soon to be able to sell what they collect directly to the factory in Yopougon. While the opportunity to earn desperately needed extra income is a positive development for the women, it is still indicative of the exploitation of women that is common throughout the world. The dirtiest, most arduous, and lowest paying jobs are often left to women to do.
What’s missing in this picture, of course, is any involvement by the companies who earn billions of dollars a year in profits while polluting the Earth with their waste products. Coca-Cola? Nestlé? PepsiCo? Where are your contributions to cleaning up the mess you have made? If the world has any hope of addressing the problem of human pollution, it needs to replace the exploitative and rapacious system of commerce in place today with one that requires polluters to pay for the harm they cause.
That applies to methane and carbon pollution as well as plastic waste. Multinational corporations have treated the Earth like a toilet since the Industrial Revolution began — a negative sum game that causes untold human misery. No quest for profits can disguise the unfairness and short sightedness of such a grossly distorted economic system. The video below shows the horrors of plastic pollution in detail. How can any civilization permit such a scourge to continue?