Plastiki Rafiki: ISK Students Empowering Communities by Cleaning the Environment
Posted: 16 March 2020
- Problem solving
- Sense of responsibility
- Commitment to sustainability
Plastiki Rafiki is a non-profit student-led club at the International School of Kenya (ISK), which is committed to cleaning up our local environment, while at the same time, economically empowering communities by supporting them to develop unique recycled plastic products such as jewelry, key chains, paddle ball sets, frisbees, bird houses, skateboards, flower pots, school chairs and we are working on making recycled plastic benches for a local school using plastic the schoolkids collected from their community. Plastiki Rafiki, which started in early 2018, has grown from a “proof of concept” to a fully functional social enterprise that has expanded beyond the school walls, encouraging others to see the value of collecting and re-purposing discarded plastic – working towards a cleaner and greener Kenya for all.
Plastiki Rafiki creates recycled products using a range of plastic moulding and subtractive manufacturing processes. ISK students build all the machines, with the help of the Open Source Plastic Recycling Community, and create all the product designs in the school’s Fabrication Lab. The focus is on plastic trash collection from natural areas, where it can make the most significant visible difference, keeping these spaces pristine and discouraging future pollution. Plastiki Rafiki product “collections” are based on different locations where the plastic rubbish was collected. For example, a keychain that is part of the “Kenya Coast Collection” will have been made from discarded plastic collected from local beaches while products from the “Mt. Kenya Collection” will have started off as plastic collected from mountain trails.
All profits from the sale of Plastiki Rafiki products go towards the further development and design of low-cost plastic recycling machines, product design, and the promotion of grassroots plastic collection and recycling in Kenya.
Collect & Protect
We collect discarded plastic throughout Kenya. However, rather than getting it from dumpsites, which would be the easiest, we try and focus on rubbish collection from natural areas. Places where rubbish has not yet taken over the environment, where collecting plastic waste can make a visible difference. We hope our actions can help keep these sacred natural spaces pristine and unspoiled and discourage other from polluting them.
Our “collections” are based on the different locations where the plastic rubbish was collected. For example, a product that is part of the “Mt. Kenya Collection” would have been made out of discarded plastic collected from mountain trails while a “Kenya Coast Collection” product would be made out of collected beach and ocean plastic.
Sort & Shred
We sort the plastic into different categories depending on the polymer. We currently work with PET-1, HDPE-2, LDPE-4, PP-5, and PS-6. Every category of plastic has different physical properties and needs to be handled differently when recycling. We then shred the sorted plastic for further processing.
Design & Create
We design and create unique products from the shedded plastic using a range of plastic molding techniques as well as subtractive manufacturing processes. We provide hands on training and support to our network partners and work closely with them to design products and develop molds that meet their need. We take a triple bottom line approach to innovation and are continuously improving our machines and manufacturing processes to make them more environmentally, socially and financially sustainable.
Initially the main challenges we faced were technical in nature. We were inspired by the open source Precious Plastic movement and we consulted their designs to build our machines, but many of the parts and manufacturing processes they recommended were not available locally so we needed to find alternatives. It took about a year, and countless iterations to build our first set of machines, a fabrication process that we can now complete in three weeks.
As Plastiki Rafiki developed and we have been setting up other workshop outside the school campus we have had other challenges. Coming from a well-resourced fabrication lab, we saw how much harder, and time-consuming production is if you need to sand products by hand, or cut and shape recycled plastic without power tools and, most importantly, use machines without a constant source of electricity. Realizing that we needed to modify the machinery to suit the Kenyan context, Plastiki Rafiki members designed a charcoal as well as a bio-gas powered plastic compressor as well as a Pedal Powered plastic shredder to enable off-grid plastic recycling.
Lastly, as is often the case with startups, we are currently working with our partner workshops to figure out the most suitable business plan for their context. We helped as much as we could while on the ground and will continue to advise from back in Nairobi. However, we realized that we will also need to dedicate more time this year to create a more easily transferable business plan to suit local contexts.
Experiential Learning & Collaboration: Plastiki Rafiki and Students for the Environment (another student-led club) came together during the annual International School of Kenya Intercultural (IC) Trips to lead a rubbish collection and awareness drive on Mt. Kenya. During their five day trips, students from the high school were able to bring back over 50 100lt bags of mixed rubbish from the Mountain. Of these, the equivalent of 32 bags were plastics that were processed into unique products. Among other products, Mt. Kenya themed keychains were injection moulded and given as gifts to the park wardens and others who helped with the Mt. Kenya clean up.
Having realized the scale of the littering problem in the area, ISK students are hoping that this clean-up drive can become part of future Mt. Kenya trips, as well as being expanded to include other school trips. In addition, the club members are looking at long term solutions, including planning to fundraise (through the sale of Plastiki Rafiki products) for bins and, eventually, a recycling facility in the area. In the short term, they are planning to install signage reminding hikers to carry their rubbish out and not to litter as part of a ‘carry in carry out’ policy which, urgently needs to be enforced on the mountain.
High school students are currently running the plastic recycling workshop; however, the aim is for it to be a space that can benefit the wider community. In the last year, Plastiki Rafiki has hosted over 20 local and international organizations, leading tours and organizing workshops within the space. Within the school club, members have collaborated with kindergarten students to build birdhouses that were hung around the school as part of their Homes Unit and helped the 2nd graders extrude discarded plastic to create tree planters as part of their unit on ‘matter’ – examples of true cross-divisional collaborations.
Community Outreach: In order to expand the impact of the club, Plastiki Rafiki is working on setting up community plastic recycling workshops around Kenya, with the hope they can help both to clean up the environment and provide much-needed employment. One of the workshops was in the informal settlement of Mathare. Being one of Nairobi’s lowest- income areas, with no formal waste collection facility, creating a facility for plastic collection and recycling makes excellent sense. The club partnered with Futbol Mas, a local after-school sports and wellness program, whose team mobilized the community to create a business plan, establish a location for the workshop and start collecting and sorting plastic. All that remained was for us to help with the machines and conduct the relevant training. Beginning in November 2019, the Mathare community is now able to clean up their environment by recycling plastic waste and, through the sale of recycled plastic products, financially support the Fútbol Más sports and wellness program.
Diani beach, on the Kenya Coast, was chosen as another project area for a partnership between Plastiki Rafiki, the Kwale Plastic Plus Collectors (KPPC), and the Nomad Marine Education Centre. The machines were built, and moulds were manufactured in the ISK fabrication lab. Over the school holidays, two Plastiki Rafiki club members volunteered their time and travelled to Diani to help set up the workshop, train KPPC on how to work the machines, and conduct marketing research. In doing so, the club members hoped to provide opportunities for local employment and help clean up some of Kenya’s most beautiful beaches.
Following the successful launch of the Diani and Mathare workshops, we are now in the planning stages of setting up other workshops to empower communities in different parts of Kenya. Our goal is for the school’s fabrication lab to continue to innovate and create products out of recycled plastic, sharing these designs with community workshops who can then make the products on a larger scale, creating local employment and cleaning up the environment in the process. Some of the new products being developed in the lab include mathematical education packs for rural schools, low cost, and durable football shin-pads and prosthetic feet.
The dangers of plastic pollution are all too real. As a club, we hope to raise awareness about the dangers of single- use plastics and drive the innovations and behavioral shifts we need to end their use. For more information, please visit our website – https://plastikirafiki.com/ or follow us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/plastikirafiki or Instagram @plastiki_rafiki
- A lot can be achieved when school clubs combine forces. Over the last two years Plastiki Rafiki has worked together with the Construction by Design Club, Interact, and Students for the Environment to implement projects which would not have been possible in isolation.
- Think global but solve locally. The best way to solve global problems is to start locally.
- Embrace the open source community. Borrow and learn from others and try and give back.
- And finally remember that rubbish is not rubbish until it is rubbish!
Author: Maciej Sudra, STEM / Design Teacher, International School of Kenya