A school built of plastic bricks in a village in the center of Côte d'Ivoire. Source: UNICEF/Frank DejonghA school built of plastic bricks in a village in the center of Côte d'Ivoire. Source: UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

A factory that turns plastic waste into building materials will help address a shortage of classrooms in the African country of Côte d'Ivoire.

Conceptos Plasticos, a Colombian company that turns discarded plastic into alternative construction materials, is teaming with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to operate a factory for turning plastic waste in Côte d'Ivoire into modular plastic bricks that assemble like Legos to construct classrooms in that country.

Construction on what Conceptos Plasticos calls a first-of-its-kind factory has begun, where plastic from sources such as tires and flip flops will be melted and poured into brick-shaped molds. Once formed, the plastic bricks are reportedly fire-resistant, waterproof, well-insulated and wind-resistant, boasting a life expectancy of hundreds of years beyond traditional construction materials. Likewise, the bricks are reportedly 40% cheaper and 20% lighter weight than traditional bricks.

Once operational, the factory is expected to recycle roughly 9,600 tonnes of plastic waste annually, the majority of which will be collected by poor women as a source of income. Although it is unclear when the factory is expected to be fully operational, nine classrooms have been built in Gonzagueville, Divo and Toumodi with plastic bricks manufactured in Colombia.

According to UNICEF, to accommodate the growing number of students in Côte d'Ivoire, the country would require the construction of roughly 15,000 classrooms. In collaboration with UNICEF, Conceptos Plasticos intends to build 500 classrooms by 2021 in the area of Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d'Ivoire, where it is estimated that 280 tonnes of plastic waste is generated each day. Eventually, the plan is to scale the project to other countries in the region.

“Sometimes, embedded deep within our most pressing challenges are promising opportunities,” said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore. “This project is more than just a waste management and education infrastructure project; it is a functioning metaphor — the growing challenge of plastic waste turned into literal building blocks for a future generation of children.”

As the plastic waste crisis overwhelms the world’s landfills and oceans, a variety of innovators and startups are devising new uses for plastic waste. A so-called Plastic Bottle Village has been erected on the island of Bocas del Toro in Panama, which consists of structures composed almost entirely of discarded plastic bottles. Similarly, a new kind of plastic-enhanced brick will be used to build houses, schools, hospitals and roads in Cape Town, South Africa, while a team of environmentalists in Kenya has constructed a boat composed almost entirely of plastic waste to highlight the issue of plastic pollution.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com