These days, Nelson Boateng calls himself a “reformed plastic bag manufacturer.” The 36-year-old entrepreneur, who at one time recycled tons of discarded plastic sachets into pellets to make plastic bags, had a moment of reckoning before striking out on a new (and far more environmentally responsible) path.
Life changed for Boateng on June 3, 2015.
That year, severe flooding aggravated by plastic waste sent floodwaters sweeping through Boateng’s densely populated home area of Ashaiman as well as other areas across Accra. On June 3, across town at the Kwame Nkrumah Interchange, some two hundred people who had taken refuge from the floods at a fuel station died when the fuel station went up in flames. The event traumatised the nation.
While the event itself was shocking, what happened next proved to be life-changing for Boateng. Ghanaian government investigators blamed the flooding on plastic waste material that had clogged the drainage system. “I was unhappy to realize that I had been a contributor to the menace all this time,” said Boateng from his workshop outside Accra.
Before the floods, Boateng’s factory used to churn out millions of plastic bags a year. “Business was good,” he said. Boateng was just 13 years old when he started working as a plastics factory hand. He learned the plastic business through hard-earned experience, using a windfall from a business deal at his first place of work to start his own plastics company at just 28.
The flood forced a change of direction. On one hand, Boateng questioned the environmental impact of his business, and on the other hand, the government added a “push” factor by issuing a ban (often ignored) on plastic bags. While the writing was clearly on the wall for the future of plastic bags, there was more. Boateng felt guilty about the environmental impact the industry he had worked in since the age of 13 had had on the city.
A pivot was required, and Boateng innovated to develop an entirely new business direction. His company, Nelplast, now turns tons of plastic waste, collected from around the city, into colourful building bricks that are even being used in the construction of everything from homes to churches.
A lot of the time, Boateng can be found at the Nelplast site, where he watches his workers mix plastic waste with sand to make a paste that is then compressed into bricks.
“The plastics are crushed, washed, semi-dried, mixed with the sand, and subsequently passed through an extruder. When the mixture comes out of the extruder, you see it in the form of a paste,” he explained.
“This paste is put on a weighing machine to ensure that all the bricks are of uniform size. The hot paste is put into another machine and given a minimum amount of pressure. After it cools, the product is ejected from the machine and the final product, which is the bricks, is packed,” he added.
Today, Nelplast’s clients include organizations seeking affordable, durable, and environmentally-responsible building materials rather than the commonly used sand-and-cement bricks.
According to Boateng, one of Nelplast’s biggest clients is Christian Action Faith Ministries Chapel International, where the bricks have even been used as pavement blocks.
When he started, the new brick project was hardly an overnight success. It took more than three years of hard trial and error to achieve the desired mix for the bricks. He finally settled on 30% plastic and 70% sand.
In Ghana, the average cost of a cement block is 5 cedis, the equivalent of US $0.67. This is what is commonly used in the construction market in the country. Boateng’s bricks cost a cedi less and come with several advantages.
“They are durable and don’t crack easily. Apart from that, they can withstand all types of weather. They are resistant to algae and have better sound absorption properties as compared with cement blocks, “he said.
Boateng explained that at first, it was difficult for potential customers to accept his plastic-infused bricks. But the public warmed up to the idea after seeing a complete prototype house, which took the company thirteen days to construct and used about 400 kg of plastic waste.
By late 2018, Boateng’s ingenuity had begun to yield results. He received a government award for his innovative work–a recognition that bolstered his confidence.
“This was reassuring because I felt that finally I was being noticed,” he said, showing off the plaques he had won.
Today, the impact of Boateng’s innovation is also being felt in the local employment sector. His company employs more than 200 people, with women forming the majority of its workforce.
Boateng says that although he has made early inroads into the construction sector with his innovation and is helping reduce environmental degradation, he has bigger dreams.
“I don’t have enough funds and machines to boost production, but when I get investors, I can do more. For now, I can only hope that people will come on board so that I can move on to my next big idea, which is producing roofing tiles made from plastic waste,” he said.