Plastic, Back At Work, Building Schools

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 Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

For the two decades our company has been managing conservation-focused enterprises. Elimination of plastic has been a passion, and finding ways to reduce its use has been an obsession. While based in India, and working on a project in Ghana, we got a close look at entrepreneurial plastic re-use for the first time. We have been on the lookout for more ever since and this story gives hope for a whole new level of solution:

Less Trash, More Schools — One Plastic Brick at a Time

Plastic garbage collected by a women’s group is being recycled into bricks and used to build schools in West Africa.

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Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — She left home before dawn. Her four children were still asleep in her cement block house in Abobo, a maze of shops and houses occupied by dockworkers, taxi drivers, factory laborers and street sellers.

She and a friend crossed into the upscale neighborhood of Angré, home to doctors and businessmen. They tossed the plastic castoffs of the consumer class into bags slung over their shoulders as the cocks crowed and the sun peeked over villa walls draped with bougainvillea.

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Students and residents gathered by plastic bricks outside their school in the Sakassou village. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Mariam Coulibaly is part of a legion of women in Abidjan who make their living picking up plastic waste on the city streets and selling it for recycling. Now they are lead players in a project that turns trash into plastic bricks to build schools across the country.

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Pre-school principal Tirangue Doumbia ushering students into a new classroom built of recycled plastic bricks at the Gonzagueville school. Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

They are working with a Colombian company to convert plastic waste — a scourge of modern life — into an asset that will help women earn a decent living while cleaning up the environment and improving education.

She sees it as a chance to better her life, maybe even to rise into the middle class.

“We don’t get good prices” from the current buyers, Ms. Coulibaly said. “This will help us.”

In the past year, the venture has built nine demonstration classrooms out of recycled plastic bricks in Gonzagueville, a scrappy neighborhood on the outskirts of Abidjan, and in two small farming villages, Sakassou and Divo. The first schools were built with bricks imported from Colombia. But in the fall, a factory now rising in an Abidjan industrial park will begin making the bricks locally.

The new plastic-brick classrooms are badly needed. Some classrooms now pack in 90 students, according to the country’s education minister. The company building the factory, Conceptos Plásticos, has a contract with UNICEF to deliver 528 classrooms for about 26,400 students, at 50 students per classroom.

In the tiny village of Sakassou, people draw water from the well with a foot pump, raise pigs and chickens, and cook over open fires. Until this year, the children went to school in a traditional mud-brick and wood building. The mud brick eroded in the sun and rain and had to be constantly repaired.

But the three new plastic classrooms could last practically forever. The interlocking bricks look like black and gray Legos. They are fire retardant and stay cool in hot weather. The other day, villagers used one of the brightly decorated classrooms to hold a village meeting.

The project would be impossible without the organizing skills of Ms. Coulibaly, president of a 200-strong women’s community association called “The Fighting Women.”

She has been collecting trash for about twenty years, since she was 15. Her husband drives a woro-woro, a shared taxi…

Read the whole story here.

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