Ghana, an African coastal nation of over 30 million people, is a perfect destination for westerners –– especially those tracing their roots. Yet, the cost of living in Ghana is higher than most arrivals may expect. One of the main drivers for the high real estate prices is the expensive cost of building materials.
What if there was a solution that doesn’t only provide affordable housing, but helps to protect the fragile environment which is already vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change?
Nelson Boateng, founder and Chief Executive Officer of NelPlast Eco Ghana Limited is a young Ghanain entrepreneur, a leading voice that is repurposing and diverting tons of plastic waste from landfills and oceans into affordable building materials for the construction of low-cost houses in Ghana.
“When the collected plastics are brought to us, we scale and pay the collectors according to the weight. The plastics are crushed, washed semi-dried and mixed with sand and sometimes, pigments to add beauty. The mixture is then fed into an extruder with 3 heating zones, which we build ourselves. Since we are using all kinds of plastic waste at their right proportion, these plastics have different melting points. As they travel through the extruder, let's say starting from 150 degrees Celsius, 180 to 220 degrees Celsius, the heating zones ensure that all kinds of plastic waste is well melted and mixed with sand. This mixer comes out as a paste, which is placed in a mold with a cooling system around it and then pressed under hydraulic press. Between 60 to 70 seconds, we eject one product out depending on the size and shape of the product. This product would then be packed on the palette and ready to be installed. NelPlast Echo plastic houses are 30% to 35% cheaper than the concrete buildings that we have, and most of our clients are happy with our projects.”
For the longest time, plastic has been the material of choice for different kinds of packaging due to its lightweight, affordability and ease of use. However, the long run consequences of easy packaging on the environment are far reaching. According to a recent UNDP report, Ghana generates over a million tons of plastic waste every year and only 2% to 5% of the plastic waste is being recycled, and Project Drawdown reveals that recycling could help reduce our carbon footprints by 2 gigatons come 2030. Yet, more and more concerns on the negative effects of plastic use on health, raises questions on whether there are any negative impacts of living in a house constructed from plastic waste! And how solid and resilient are these structures to natural disasters?
“NelPlast bricks are not laid with cement. They are interlocked with each other and due to that nature, they are able to contract and expand when there's uncertainty on the earth. It can also withstand earthquakes because the walls are not rigid. They have the ability to be flexible when there is any earthquake. Also in terms of cracks, the wall with plastics doesn't crack so easily. The bricks are cheaper and stronger than conventional bricks. They can withstand water lock areas and also avoid dampness to the walls. They are safe in terms of fire, because the high percentage of the sand makes the product fire retardant. It's not easy for these bricks to just get burnt. The bricks are designed in such a way that there is a groove in the middle of the brick that heat from outside to penetrate into the inner part of the room and also maintain the temperature of the inner part of the bricks.”
Reduce, reuse, and recycle! This is the recommended way of life that Boateng is actively working to promote in his home country - Ghana. NelPlast Eco Ghana Limited, born out of frustration with the disturbing amounts of plastic waste continuously buried in landfills is an initiative committed to rid the country of the gulf of plastic waste that is polluting the environment and water bodies, while securing economic opportunities for the unemployed youth in Ghana.
“We have the problem of plastic waste, the problem of school infrastructure, housing deficit and unemployment. NelPlast is trying to use the problem of plastic waste to build affordable houses and solve the problem of housing in Ghana. Build schools, create jobs for unemployed youth to reduce social violence and clean the environment. Currently, NelPlast employees 63 workers directly and over 300 indirect workers and 98% of this indirect workers are women who go around the landfills, drainage and beaches to collect plastic waste and sell to us - and that's how they earn their living.”
Boateng’s drive to save the environment from plastic pollution does not go by unsupported or unnoticed.
“We won Ghana UK based achievement award as innovation and technology of the year; EMY Africa - the green corporate star award; African product and service award; Ghana property award as best echo construction product; Ghana industry award; SEED low carbon award and the business executive excellence award.”
However, his ability to scale the business is confronted by many challenges.
“Ghana has a lot of challenges and one of them is the cost of electricity. There are no subsidies for recyclers in Ghana and that is really discouraging others to join the line. I have passion with plastics because at the age of 13 I was already working with the plastic industry. I did computer network engineering but my passion is how to deal with plastic waste. Also, because of our capacity issues we get a little bit scared of accepting more contracts. A lot of people are calling who want a house, but the problem has to do with our capacity. So because of that, this year we are handling only 15 clients, next year we can add on. If we can have subsidies from the government on electricity bills, soft loans to help us expand, I think it will go a very long way.”
A recent World Bank report projects that waste will grow from 2 billion tonnes in 2020 to nearly 3 billion tonnes by 2050, and the effects may be more adverse for developing countries, where more than 90% of trash is either dumped in the open or burned, worsening the climate crisis. As many look forward to the UN International Climate Conference - COP27 - just around the corner, Boateng is curious to know where plastic pollution fits in the conversations.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was edited for clarity.]
Correction (9/7/2022): An earlier version of this story misidentified where in Africa Ghana is located. This version corrects it.