The glut of plastic waste in Accra, Ghana’s capital, is evident along the side of the road, with discarded bottles, plastic bags and the like. This same plastic wave has also affected the country’s once-pristine beaches. But an innovative project may be about to change that.
One Ghanaian has developed a solution by creating a product that would help clean up the city and provide an alternative to expensive building materials.
Nelson Boateng, the Chief Executive Officer at Plastic manufacturing firm Nelplast had been making disposable water sachets since 2013. But the disaster that struck Accra on 3 June 2015 made him re-examine his business.
A huge rainstorm caused a flood in the capital, that was exacerbated by plastic bags and plastic waste caught in the storm drains. People scrambled to dry space at a petrol station that caught fire, killing at least 250 people.
Government threatened to ban single-use plastic production as it was blamed for the incident.
“Most of the blame was shifted to plastic bag manufacturers, and I felt very bad because I know I am one big contributor to that problem,” says Boateng.
“I had to find a way of dealing with the plastic in a more sustainable way, and that’s how we came about with the plastic bricks design,” Boateng tells Africa Calling podcast correspondent Zubaida Mabuno Ismail.
Boateng began working at the company as child, aged 13, to help provide for his family. After working his way up the ladder, he eventually bought the company in 2012.
Sound doesn’t bounce on plastic bricks
It has taken time to get the public onboard with the "new" idea to make durable plastic bricks.
“We did research for about two years so we started real production in 2018, but because this product is new to Ghana, I was doing a lot of free work,” says Boateng.
He was so eager for people to accept his product, his first jobs with the bricks were done for free in the hopes that users would see the benefits, and eventually pay for these novel building materials.
One of the first installations of the plastic brick was the flooring at Action Chapel International House of prayer in Accra in 2017. Church facility maintenance manager Alex Boa-amponsem says they’re very sturdy and have other advantages, too.
“They have no wear and tear and are as new as when they were installed,” says Boa-amponsem.
“We realized that the material was sound resistant so when you use it, it serves the purpose of acoustics such as foam and other things we put in the studio,” he says.
“The sound doesn’t bounce back, unlike having a concrete or a block floor,” he adds.
The bricks officially debuted in 2019, offering even more advantages than the average cement blocks, says Boateng, who put his idea to use on site at Nelplast, where a prototype plastic brick house serves as offices for his business.
“I designed the blocks in such a way that there’s a hole in between each one which doesn’t allow heat to get into the room but also maintains the temperature of the inner part of the brick,” says Boateng.
He says there was a bit of trial and error before the plastic blocks were made to withstand cutting and drilling, and to allow for air circulation—it took seven trials until the bricks were just right.
“The bricks are made in such a way that you can cut through them, fix your cables and pipes, so nobody would know that you cut through the walls,” he says, adding that the house-office has plumbing.
And this sort of construction will make housing prices, reasonable, too. Currently, a one-bedroom concrete house in Ghana costs at least 150,000 Ghana cedis, an equivalent of more than 20,000 euros, a price the average worker cannot afford.
“A cement paving block is 75 cedis per square metre compared to ours, which is 50 cedis. In terms of durability, ours is more durable as plastic is the binder in the product,” says Boateng.
Keeping costs down
The Nelplast solution uses discarded plastic, building a home at less than half the price. And Boateng says he’s always looking for ways to improve the design, yet keep the costs down for the consumer.
The prototype house is made of 13,400 kilos of plastic waste, picked from beaches and drainage ditches. It took 72 days to build the house for 60,000 cedis, which used regular roofing tiles.
“I plan to introduce plastic roofing tiles in July, which will further bring the cost down, because we really want to help the ordinary Ghanaian,” he says.
Boateng says that the plastic bricks are environmentally stable, because they will not attract algae, while concrete bricks will eventually have algae growing on them.
It’s for reasons like this that building professionals are enthused about the plastic bricks. But some, such as Godwin Assam, executive director at Archisultant, an architectural consulting firm in Accra, says he wants to see more architectural and environmental research done to build trust in the product.
“There’s no data to back whether with time those chemicals will not emit some toxic elements into the soil; if there’s data to prove then we’re good to go,” says Archisultant’s Godwin Assam Anaba.
“I will seriously call for research into this. Building research institutions should take this up. It’s a laudable idea. We have to look at the thermal insulation,” he adds.
The Institute of Environmental and Sanitation Studies of the University of Ghana has keenly followed Boateng’s project and sees both a positive and negative side to these plastic bricks.
The bricks could be used in certain environments, but the team leader at the university’s plastic project worries that with heavy-duty use, the plastic could contaminate soil.
“The bricks can be susceptible to little breakages into micro and minor plastics, especially where heavy duty vehicles pass on these places, says Julius-Jayson Amenuve Botchway.
“It’s going to seep into the soil as a micro substance and is probably not recoverable,” he adds.
However, Botchway says the plastic bricks are seemingly safe for use in housing construction.
“For a normal person, the very first thing that will be in their mind is, ‘ooh it’s plastic, how about burning, what if it catches fire?’ But looking at the composition of the block, he’s added sand,” says Botchway.
“Sand is more or less like a fire extinguisher, so mixing sand with plastic, is really going to burn very slowly—that’s one feature I really give him thumbs up for,” he says.
Cleaning the ocean and making homes
According to the United Nations Development Programme, Ghana generates about one million tons of plastic waste annually. Out of this, only 2-5% is recycled. The rest ends up in landfill, in the sea, or is burned.
At Nelplast brick factory, sorting begins of all the plastic waste that is picked up in the city. Boateng employs a team of 300 people to pick plastic waste, and this work could complement other efforts in plastic recycling.
“They have the capacity of collecting 20,000 kilos of plastic daily, but Nelplast only has the capacity to recycle three thousand kilos daily,” says Boateng, who would like to expand production once the product takes off.
Since its establishment, Nelplast has produced some 250,000 paving bricks to clients with each weighing approximately, 7.5 kilos. And the factory has already been recognized by the UN Development Program for the plastic brick project, winning an Africa Innovators award.
While this project could offer some relief in the housing sector, Boateng sees a future in investing in Ghana’s future—providing classrooms for students.
While work has not begun yet in the housing and education sector, Boateng says he’s had reassurance from government officials that his plastic bricks are a winner.
“We had the minister for works and housing visiting us. He made his promise that he will ensure most of the public housing and schools will be built from these locally made materials because that’s what the government is looking at,” he adds.