Making Waves: Turning Plastic Into Paving

Zoë Lenkiewicz, head of programmes and engagement for WasteAid UK overviews the charity’s developments, its project in the Gambia to capture and recycle ocean-bound plastic, and how people can get involved.

Women’s Initiative the Gambia and WasteAid in the new UK Aid funded workshop, Pierre Kamsouloum, WasteAid’s plastics expert, in green

“This project has gone viral!” said Baai Jabaang, director of local partner organisation Trust Agency for Rural Development, as yet another group of curious villagers arrive to see what all the fuss is about.

WasteAid’s flagship programme in the Gambia is making waves with 30 local women, youths and people with disabilities now trained in turning plastic bags into paving tiles.

Women’s Initiative the Gambia has undertaken baseline surveys to determine current attitudes and behaviours to waste. People overwhelmingly feel that indiscriminate waste dumping reduces environmental quality, but without an alternative the future looks littered.

The survey revealed some unexpected facts: many people dispose of metal and glass in their toilets (pit latrines). At first we thought this was maybe a misunderstanding on our part, but on further investigation found this is considered the safest thing to do with sharps. Since small children and animals frequently scavenge on open dumpsites, the presence of broken glass or sharp metal would put them at further risk.

Waste is either indiscriminately dumped (littered) or taken to a communal or disused patch of land. Once the waste has accumulated over some weeks or months, it is burned at night so as to minimise the nuisance for local residents. 

Wider Solutions

The first patterned tiles, made in moulds that had been designed and fabricated by local welder Ishmail. Left in green is our field officer Babucarr Camara; Pierre Kamsouloum in the centre; trainees from Gunjur village

While the main focus of our project in the Gambia is to capture and recycle ocean-bound plastic, we are also empowering local people to run communication campaigns on broader waste management and environmental health issues.

A large focus of the project is on awareness raising. Most people are simply not aware of the harm caused by burning mixed waste. Many people are also unaware of the harm that dumped plastic waste can do to wildlife and livestock, agricultural soils and waterways.

There is a clear opportunity to make a big impact by providing alternatives to open dumping and burning. There is also the appetite: our programme officer Babucarr Camara was interviewed about the project on a national radio phone-in show that lasted well over an hour.

The 30 trainees are now working in two teams, alternating weekly, with one collecting plastic while the other makes paving tiles. Their products are very high quality, are more durable than concrete tiles and meet a need in the Gambia for “stone”, since there is none in the local geology.

People could not believe their eyes with the first demonstration, as WasteAid’s trainer Pierre Kamsouloum turned plastic bags into “stone” in a little over 30 minutes.

The class had been collecting plastic waste since WasteAid’s first visit in December

In true WasteAid fashion, we are also exploring how to recover value from all of the community’s solid waste, for instance by looking into simple ways to grind glass to produce a replacement for sand. There is an endless demand for sand in the construction sector with large quantities being mined from the local beach every day, causing serious coastal erosion.

Volunteers Jen Robertson, Victoria Manning and Dave Leeke have been instrumental in ensuring we record everything – from the survey design to process refinements and the graduation ceremony – to share our progress with our funders UK Aid and supporters around the world.

This type of knowledge is in high demand and so the success of this pilot project is pivotal. We are working on establishing plastic collection points at strategic points around the village of some 30,000 people, to provide a regular supply of clean waste material for the processing centre.

WasteAid will be training a further two classes of thirty over the coming year, as well as a cohort of trainers from Women’s Initiative the Gambia who will spread the knowledge into rural Gambia. The majority of our trainees are women; many are illiterate; some have disabilities; and most live in extreme poverty (defined as an income less than £1.50 a day). By providing translators, demonstrating activities clearly, ensuring that PPE fits and is used, and fabricating some new chairs, we were able to meet the funder’s objective “to leave no-one behind”.

Get Involved

If you have some time to offer and are interested in using your skills to help tackle the global waste challenge, get in touch with the WasteAid team. We are planning a huge summer of fundraising events and need everyone’s help to make it a success.

Volunteering at an awareness raising and fundraising event is a great way to get to know the organisation and make a positive impact. Many workplaces offer employees a number of hours to spend on CSR initiatives, and helping out offers a really good insight into how a small charity works.

Details of our annual highlight, the 2019 Walk for WasteAid, will be released soon. It promises to be another fun day out where we all meet new people and rise to a challenge, while raising money to help spread recycling skills around the world.

Perhaps the easiest thing anyone can do to show support is through social media. Follow @WasteAid on facebook, twitter and linkedin for the latest updates, sign up to the newsletter, and share with your friends. As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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