Purified water is be­coming more readily available in develop­ing countries with the appearance of 500-mL plastic water sachets. Users typically bite off a corner of the sa­chet, drink the water inside, and toss the used sachet on the ground as waste. Used water sachets are accumulating along roadsides and are a primary source of litter in many countries such as Ghana. Additionally, the discarded sachets contain trace amounts of water and have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Sachets that get buried beneath the soil can stop plant growth by blocking roots.

This problem does not end with water sachets. Plastic waste in general is a growing problem all throughout Africa.

I first became involved in plastic recycling with MIT‘s Development Lab (D-Lab) in 2007. We were the first D-Lab group to tackle such a problem, and we started by melting the bags into hand bags, earrings, shin guards, and other products. Our product quality and methods, though, needed improvement, and we struggled to determine if the energy that went into melting our products was actually worth the effort.

d-lab earring (3)

I continued this project the following year when I traveled to Ghana with D-Lab. We tried a few different methods for melting and molding the plastic, including heating a mold into a clay oven, though none worked as well as we hoped. We also got feedback on our products – shin guards were the big winner.

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d-lab shin guard

Since then, the project has progressed. I learned more about recycling methods through my work with Practical Action and the Plastic Recyclers cooperative in Nairobi, Kenya. Some of the groups I visited wove baskets from recycled bags while others melted them into roofing tiles.

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Recently, a team at the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) undertook the problem. The summit was first hosted by MIT and was the brain child of D-Lab’s founder and head lecturer. The IDDS team has taken plastic recycling to a new level, and a short blurb and picture on their new technology can be found here.

The world of plastic recycling in developing countries still has a long way to go. Technologies need testing and prototyping. People need to be convinced of their advantages and need to like their products. And ultimately, these things must be scaled up drastically to have any sort of noticeable impact. But the progress I’ve seen in the past few years gives me hope for the future of recycled products and the environment in developing countries.

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