NAIROBI, Dec. 16 (Xinhua) -- Nzambi Matee resolved at a young age to be part of the solution to the plastic pollution menace that had defaced the natural beauty associated with the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
The 29-year-old material science major and inventor who was among seven winners of the 2020 UN Young Champions of the Earth Award, has become a towering figure thanks to her relentless quest to ensure Nairobi's landfills, waterways and green spaces are not clogged by plastic waste.
Matee's plastic recycling innovation that has created new revenue sources for urban youth, earned her the prestigious UN Award which incorporates funding and mentorship to spur growth of green start-ups.
"I was initially tired of seeing plastic waste strewn all over the streets and decided to jump in and offer a solution. Plastic is a material that is misused and misunderstood yet it has enormous potential," said Matee.
She worked briefly in the oil industry and in 2017 quit a lucrative data analysis career to set up a small laboratory in her parent's backyard where she began creating and testing pavers that are made from plastic and sand.
Matee defied disapproving neighbors to operate an old and noisy machine and create plastic paving blocks that have now gained traction in Kenya's construction industry.
"I shut down my social life for an entire year and put all my savings into the plastic paving blocks project. Even my close relatives and friends had misconceptions on my new venture," said Matee.
Her nascent social enterprise, called Gjenge Makers, sought to alleviate the plastic pollution crisis in Nairobi's densely populated neighborhoods, and has grown rapidly over the last three years thanks to grit, dedication and resilience.
Matee's entrepreneurial aspirations received a boost when she won a scholarship to attend a social entrepreneurship training program in the U.S.
She packed samples of plastic paving blocks in her luggage and used the materials laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder in the U.S. to further test and refine them.
It was while in the U.S. that Matee designed a machine that she would later use to make refined plastic and sand bricks that are ideal for paving roads and play grounds in Nairobi's informal settlements.
"Three years of hard work have at least paid off now that we are able to churn out a large quantity of pavers made from recycled plastic and sand," said Matee.
She said that an elementary school located in one of Nairobi's densely populated slums has purchased the paving blocks to renovate a playground and walkways.
Matee said that Gjenge Makers churns out 1,500 plastic pavers every day and they are prized by homeowners and schools thanks to their affordability and durability.
She said the paving blocks are fully certified by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, have over 350 degree centigrade melting point and are stronger than their concrete equivalent.
"We need to come up with innovative solutions to plastic waste pollution in our neighborhoods, create jobs for the youth and improve the health of our environment," said Matee.
She said that the government and industry should motivate young people to take up waste recycling jobs and boost the growth of the circular economy.
"Plastic waste is a global problem but it can be converted into a resource through recycling. We look forward to scaling up the solution and motivating other young people to act for nature," said Matee.
She said that recycling a bigger portion of nearly 500 metric tons of plastic waste generated in Nairobi daily could boost the war against poverty and infectious diseases.
Experts said that young people should be at the heart of the search for a durable solution to pollution created by end of life industrial products like plastics.
"We must rethink how we manufacture industrial products and deal with them at the end of their useful life," said Soraya Smaoun, industrial production specialist with the UN Environment Programme.
"Nzambi Matee's innovation in the construction sector highlights the economic and environmental opportunities when we move from a linear economy, where products, once used, are discarded, to a circular one, where products and materials continue in the system for as long as possible," Smaoun added. Enditem