Dr Harriet Baird is a researcher working on a project being conducted by the Grantham Centre (at the University of Sheffield) exploring novel solutions and strategies for reducing the impact of single-use plastic. Harriet is working on the behaviour change stream among a large multidisciplinary team encompassing chemists, life-cycle analysis specialists, geographers, and linguists.

Harriet and her colleague Dr Thomas Webb visited the WasteAid team in The Gambia to understand attitudes and behaviours towards single-use plastic, in the country’s top recycling village.

 

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In a small coastal town in The Gambia sits a hive of activity where young people and women from the local community make floor and roof tiles from plastic waste otherwise destined for dump sites or the ocean. This innovative project, organised by WasteAid, teaches practical and cost-effective waste management strategies to communities in low-income countries.

WasteAid is an independent charity in the UK that promotes and shares waste management skills in order to create jobs, protect the environment, and improve public health in developing countries.

Dr Harriet Baird and Dr Thomas Webb, researchers from The University of Sheffield, met Babucarr Camara, who is the field officer heading up the team in Gunjur, to hear more about this unique and exciting project.

Gunjur is a typical community in The Gambia with no waste management system. As a result, the local people are forced to either dump or burn their waste, practices that threaten people’s health as well as the environment. 

In order to tackle this increasing problem, WasteAid recruits and trains members of the local community, particularly young people and older women who have fewer work opportunities in The Gambia, to collect, sort, and then process plastic waste into durable and useful products that can then be sold to generate an income.

 

For this particular project, the product that they make is paving and roof tiles. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), typically in the form of plastic bags and film wrap, is collected from the local community and neighbouring villages. Approximately 5kg of plastic is collected by each member of the team each day (teams are made up of approximately 30 people).

The waste is then carefully sorted to remove dangerous plastics (e.g. PVC) and other contaminants, such as tape.

Clean and dry LDPE is then melted slowly in a metal drum, ensuring that the plastic does not burn. The melted plastic is mixed thoroughly so that any lumps are removed. This process takes approximately 20 minutes to complete. Sand is then added and mixed well to create a grey-like cement.

Typically, 3-parts sand is added to 1-part LDPE. The plastic acts as the bonding agent to hold the sand together.

 

The mixture is removed from the drum using a spade and added to a mould. Oil is used to smooth and shape the mixture using a trowel. The hot mixture is then left to set in the mould for approximately 15 minutes.

It takes around 200 plastics bags to make one paving slab (weighing approximately 2.5kg), and the whole process from melting the plastic to having a finished product takes less than one hour to complete.

 

WasteAid have created a detailed toolkit providing technical and safety advice for this process

 

The resulting paving slab or tile is lighter and more durable than traditional tiles used in the Gambia. The tiles are sold to local businesses and it is estimated that the project has made 122,000 Gambian Dalasi to date (roughly £2,000). Once the tiles have been sold, the money from the sale of the tiles is divided among the team based on the number of days that each team member has worked.

This trip was made possible by a Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) Pump Priming Award, as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).

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