Turning plastic into products in Uganda

Meet Eco Brixs, the newest partner to join this growing Renew Our World global campaign.

The team at Eco Brixs are on a mission to create sustainable solutions to lift people out of extreme poverty in Uganda.

Founder and CEO, Andy Bownds, shares how Eco Brixs is creatively tackling plastic waste and currently responding to COVID-19 in Uganda. 

Responding to plastic waste & poverty 

With no formal waste management system in Uganda, plastic is pervasive. Over 600 tonnes of it is discarded each day, the majority of which ends up in landfill or burnt illegally, resulting in huge detrimental impacts on Uganda’s environment and its people. Poverty is also widespread. 

It was in response to these realities that Eco Brixs was founded.

“Eco Brixs is a closed-loop recycling model to help tackle the issue of plastic waste and create employment in Uganda,” says the organisation’s founder and CEO, Andy Bownds. “We recycle plastic. We upvalue it and create building materials out of different types of plastic.”

The team collects around 15 tonnes of plastic each month, which they hope to soon increase to 20-25 tonnes. 

“We do this through community collection hubs in and around Masaka, which is where we operate and is a couple of hours south of Kampala, the capital of Uganda,” Andy shares. “We currently have 28 collection hubs in the community, set up in convenient areas that people will already be travelling to like trading centres, market spaces and churches. The Catholic Diocese of Masaka provides us with the land that we operate on, so we have a really close tie there.”

Not only are Eco Brixs contributing to a cleaner, greener community and a more sustainable local economy through their plastic initiatives, but they are also providing much needed income to more vulnerable community members. 

“Fifty percent of the collection hubs are run by community members with disabilities,” says Andy. “And anyone in the community can come there with their plastic and receive instant cash for their plastic. We buy all the plastic we get in. 

“Each hub has an average of 165 people delivering each month, so that’s income to all those people. This is amazing because the people collecting the plastic at the start of the value chain are almost certainly people that rely heavily on that income stream.”

Two years since its start, Eco Brixs is now one of the largest recycling facilities outside of Kampala. Over this time, the team has created a certified plastic-sand composite paver out of their recycled plastics. The pavers have been demonstrated to be stronger, cheaper and more durable than concrete, and are lighter than building alternatives, cutting costs during transportation. 

“As a result, we already have a lot of pre-orders in place to pave massive areas,” shares Andy excitedly. “We’re also organising a contract with the Masaka District where we’ll pave the public spaces in Masaka. 

“Everytime we increase our product line and add to our market, then we can also add to our buy-in price, so everyone wins along the whole value chain. That’s really cool because if we can create a good circular economy, then we can control the prices, so we can up the prices to benefit the starters of the value chain. [That’s who] we’re focused on – vulnerable members of the community.”

The team is also excited for their new campaign educating students about the dangers of plastic and the importance of recycling. Young people will be encouraged to petition the government to invest in recycling, and map the informal waste collectors in five major districts of the country.

“There are a lot of people that are collecting and informally recycling plastic across Uganda, but they don’t have a voice in their communities,” Andy explains. “So the students will map the informal waste collectors and put them under one formal entity. They will be put on an app so everyone can see where they can recycle plastic. They will also be given uniforms. This will enable them to have the dignity and the respect of their fellow community members. It’s incredibly exciting!”

These initiatives are set to launch as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic has eased, so watch this space!

Responding to COVID-19

Like much of the world during these unprecedented times, Uganda is currently in lockdown in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. There are strict new laws on social distancing, curfews, the movement of people and the closure of non-essential businesses. Andy sheds light on the current situation:

Uganda acted very fast in its lockdown procedures to prevent the spread of COVID, which is good, but with such a massive informal employment sector in Uganda, the lockdown is causing huge problems for those that live on daily wages. There are many, many people – something like 70% – all employed in the informal sector. They don’t have contracts. A huge percentage were employed in the tourism sector, but obviously that’s completely collapsed. Then the transport network has stopped, so there’s no public transport. All non-essential businesses are closed. All the people working in these industries have lost their incomes. So unless you’re selling food, or working in a pharmacy or the medical profession, your income stream has completely stopped. People don’t have the backup to keep them going through this time. Plus with schools closing and all the kids back at home, like anywhere in the world where the kids were on school lunch programs, they’re now at home having to be fed on top of the fact that there isn’t any income coming in. So, although the COVID count is quite low, the impact of the lockdown may have a bigger impact than COVID actually does. 

While Eco Brixs’ recycling initiatives are currently suspended due to COVID-19, the team has shifted gears to supporting Masaka through this outbreak. Its efforts focus on equipping hospital staff in combatting the virus, and supplying food to vulnerable community members. 

“It’s been a real privilege to be able to link with the emergency task force in Masaka and come up with a number of plans to support the community here,” Andy shares. “Masaka Referral Hospital has a catchment of about 2 million people from across Greater Masaka Region, which is nine districts. They had no isolation space. They’ve now got an isolation unit. They now do screening at the hospital gate. They’ve repaired the hospital fence because people were using it as a shortcut. They’ve repaired the water supply and the backup power supply. There’s also now a hotline and three ambulances that we keep fully fuelled and staffed. All very basic, but really, really needed.

“So the hospital now feels like they’re more ready now if COVID does take hold. But the personal protective equipment will run out. So we’ve just placed an order for a machine that creates face shields out of recycled plastic. They can just be disinfected and reused, so they’ll be more cost effective as well. And they can be kept for the future, whereas face masks are just disposable.”

The team have also been granted permission to work alongside Masaka District officials to supply food packages, soap, and seeds for vulnerable families to grow their own crops sustainably. 

“The food program is a real challenge,” shares Andy. “We can identify the vulnerable families through local charities and village chairmen, but the scale is massive. In semi-urban settings like Masaka, people are really struggling. Luckily, in the more rural settings, they’ll actually be better off because they’ll be growing their own food and they have land available to do that.”

With so many people who have lost their sources of income, the lasting impacts of this season will be felt for a long time across Uganda, and indeed across the whole developing world. “We’ve got to pray that life goes back to normal as quickly as possible so the recovery can start,” says Andy. “But I also pray that people really learn from this because more viruses and diseases will come if we continue to mess with the natural balance of things. The more we take down rainforests and destroy habitats, we’re coming into contact with things that we shouldn’t be coming into contact with. If we don’t respond and proactively change habits, we’re all going to really struggle. We’ve all shown that we can do it.”

Alongside the very real challenges, Andy says there have been many encouraging moments during this time, too:

The international community has donated incredibly to this cause. People are being really generous and supporting others when they could easily look inwards. It’s amazing that people have that giving heart. 

Locally, all our team has adapted very quickly. Everyone has put their hands up and actually we’ve got more volunteers than what we can handle in the community! It’s really, really cool to see that. 

Uganda as a whole is a really friendly, beautiful country. There’s a very good community spirit – people know their neighbours, but across the whole world I think people are really getting to know their communities better and connect with nature more. 

On my walk yesterday, I was really pleased to see that in the surrounding villages, everyone has planted. People are really thinking about making the most of this time and planting while we still have some rains, which is amazing. People are planning for their own food security. Almost every little patch of clear land has been planted on, so in that way Uganda will be in a strong position going into the future.

With Eco Brixs just at the start of their journey as an organisation, there’s no doubt that their future, too, will be bright.

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