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'The Fighting Women' of Africa Collect Plastic to Build Schools

plastic bricks
Preschool children rejoice in their new classroom in Gonzagueville, a suburban of Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, Africa. Classroom buildings were built with bricks made out of recycled plastic. UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

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As Americans are coming to terms with modern life, sipping from paper straws and packing their own reusable grocery bags, a group of women on Africa's Ivory Coast are taking eco-consciousness several steps further, recycling plastic garbage into bricks to build schools.

According to The New York Times, a legion of women in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire known as "The Fighting Women" have made it their job to collect plastic waste along city streets and sell it for recycling, leading a project that helps turn disposed goods into valuable construction materials. Working with a Colombian company that actually transforms the plentiful plastic waste into bricks, the women have successfully led the construction of nine demonstration classrooms out of recycled plastic bricks in a neighborhood called Gonzagueville, as well as two small farming villages, Sakassou and Divo.

While the bricks were originally built in Colombia and imported to Abidjan, the city will open its own factory in the fall of 2019 to produce bricks locally. Conceptos Plásticos, the company building the Abidjan factory, has some big plans in store for the future: According to its contract with UNICEF, it will help create 528 classrooms for about 26,400 students. The goal is to get 50 students into each classroom, down from the current per-classroom rate of 90 students. Bringing brick production to Abidjan will have a big impact on classroom construction costs, which are already being reduced by the switch from cement to plastic from $16,500 each down to $14,500 each — and the price is expected to drop by another 20 percent when production is local.

plastic bricks
Women sorting plastic in a landfill in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. More than 300 million tons (272 million metric tons) of plastic are produced every year around the world, yet just a fraction is recycled.
UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

Plastic brick classrooms may sound precarious, but the materials are surprisingly strong and sturdy. Not only do the bricks stay cool in hot temperatures, they're fire retardant and interlock like LEGOS to form solid structures. And the possibilities for building projects are potentially limitless: While each classroom takes about 5 tons (4.5 metric tons) of plastic trash to build, Abidjan produces about 300 tons (272 metric tons) of it a day. Currently only 5 percent of that amount is recycled, but the school project could drastically transform those numbers.

The idea to convert plastic waste into building materials for educational institutions started with medical doctor and former Ivory Coast representative for UNICEF, Aboubacar Kampo. After connecting with Conceptos Plásticos founders Oscar Andrés Méndez and his wife, Isabel Cristina Gámez, Kampo recruited their company to help realize his vision — the for-profit company had been operating with the social mission of constructing housing and creating jobs for low income populations. Méndez and Gámez relocated to Abidjan in June and plan to expand their company into other parts of West Africa and hire 30 people to purchase plastic from approximately 1,000 women in the first year of operation.

plastic bricks
A teacher with her students in a classroom made of recycled plastic.
UNICEF/Frank Dejongh

The women who collect and sell the plastic are the heart of the innovative program. Mariam Coulibaly serves as the president of The Fighting Women's 200 members, calling on 20 years of experience collecting and selling trash. The official minimum wage in the country is about $25 per week, but many people reportedly earn much less. While The Fighting Women currently earn anywhere from $8.50 to $17 each week, they have the potential to triple their incomes once the local factory opens, since it will buy specific types of plastic like snack wrappers and cellphone parts that are currently unlikely to sell elsewhere.

As The New York Times reports, Ivory Coast education minister Kandia Camara has high hopes for the project. "For us, it's not a humiliating profession," she told The Times. "It is a job organized for them, their financial autonomy, their dignity, family, society, and their contribution to the development of the country."

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