Eco Brixs: Tackling plastic waste and creating jobs in Uganda
Eco Brixs is a closed-loop recycling system providing employment opportunities while creating a positive environmental impact in Masaka, Uganda. In June 2019, The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust were delighted to partner with Eco Brixs, supporting them at a pivotal moment in their organisational development. Funding and support from QCT will allow Eco Brixs to develop and grow its existing activities by contributing to core operational costs, helping to unlock further growth potential.
Extreme levels of plastic waste, youth unemployment and poverty
Every day across Uganda more than 600 tons of plastic is disposed, and with no formal means of waste collection, over 90% ends up being sent to landfill or burnt illegally. Of the small percentage that is recycled, only Polyethylene Terephthalate and High-Density Polyethylene (both commonly found in plastic drinking bottles) have a market – but these plastics are often shipped out to India, where it is used in the production of polyester-based items, instead of being leveraged to support the local economy in Uganda. With 26% of the Ugandan population living in poverty, and 83% of 15-24 years olds currently unemployed, it is imperative that a solution be found that not only provides fair economic benefits for local Ugandans, but also creates new jobs and addresses the environmental challenges being faced.
Giving trash a value
Eco Brixs sets out to tackle these environmental issues and create much-needed employment opportunities through its closed-loop recycling system. This system starts with local people collecting plastic waste, which they deposit to satellite collection stations in return for payment. The plastic waste is then made into a plastic sand composite to be used for pavers and other construction materials. The product has gone through extensive testing and is stronger, lighter and cheaper to produce than concrete.
With 14 sites based in market and trading centres, and plans to build 20 more with support from QCT, Eco Brixs have made it as convenient as possible for the community to recycle and access new income streams; stimulating the local economy and encouraging people to look after their environment.
Beyond its core operations, Eco Brixs also has a focus on reducing the country’s plastic consumption as a whole. They do this through an educational program that establishes Eco Clubs in schools across the Masaka District. The clubs involve interactive lessons where students learn about the dangers of plastic, and are given practical methods to aid in reducing their usage at home, as well ideas for implementing sustainable systems at school.
A major financial boost for the local economy and a significant increase in plastic recycling within the community
Eco Brixs has injected over $38,000 into the local economy since December 2018 alone, helping to alleviate poverty and engage the local community on environmental issues. Eco Brixs recycling sites have created a new market for plastic which is taken up by some of the most vulnerable and underrepresented community members; youth and those with disabilities. Their system has created over 500 zero-hour income opportunities and provided 12 full-time jobs. Eco Brixs have also employed 6 disabled staff who manage the community collection sites.
Since their launch, Eco Brixs have recycled over 150 tons of plastic that might have otherwise been left to have a devasting impact on the local environment, and they now have ambitious plans to increase their capacity through the opening of an Eco Brixs factory. To operate its new factory and activities, Eco Brixs will need to build a vast plastic collection network, creating convenient recycling centres in more markets and trading centres. This network will create 3,000 freelance jobs, 33 full time employees, and will see over 30 tons of plastic recycled a month in Masaka.
CEO and Founder of Eco Brixs
How did it all start?
In Uganda the plastic problem is not hidden in closed-off landfill sites, it is very visual and ever-present. On any walk you will see piles of trash alight and smell the fumes of plastic burning and polluting the atmosphere. It was seeing this that made me want to start Eco Brixs back in 2017. After 6 months of research and knocking on doors, I brought together a team of Eco Warriors, Johnson and Nickolas.
Johnson came to my gate one day and asked if I had a job for him. Together, we spent the next year doing odd jobs around the house and bits of gardening. But the whole time his potential wasn’t being used. The birth of Eco Brixs was an opportunity to utilise Johnson’s wide range of skills. He came on as a collection manager and now oversees the staff team and manages all working accounts daily.
Nickolas Mulondo saw us recycling and came asking to take some plastic for research he was doing. This caught my attention and soon it came apparent that he was the right man to take on the challenge of developing the plastic paver concept. We helped him finish his research and graduate before he joined Eco Brixs full time. Together, the three of us initially collected over 2 tons of plastic in my garden.
I think we can all say we learnt that if you’re open to people then a chance meeting can develop into something great. It was truly a team effort that has allowed us, in two short years, to build a full factory line, produce plastic building products and have a community-led collection network that now recycles over 15 tons a month.
What's been your greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge has been changing mindsets in the community. In Uganda recycling is still a very new concept, so convincing people of the dangers to the environment and encouraging them to change their practices has been hard. However, giving immediate cash rewards for plastic, talking in schools and setting up local community collection sites has helped to change these attitudes faster than we expected. We now know our model works and want to continue to expand our convenient collection sites to bring recycling to more communities.
What’s been your greatest achievement?
We are really proud of the unique solution we have created which is providing an environmentally friendly way to solve the plastic problem in Uganda and has the opportunity to be scaled. The product took months of trial and error before a certified sand and plastic mix was found that was able to include all types of plastic and maintain its strength. It is this product that is the basis of our work and is allowing us to increase the collection and provided thousands of more income opportunities for vulnerable community members.
What’s next for your project?
Once the factory has been in operation for 6 months and is a proven concept with accountable facts and figures, we will have demonstrated to the world that it is possible to create a sustainable closed-loop recycling system in rural communities. We plan to expand across Uganda, moving into all 5 major districts outside of Kampala. And after that, we believe that Eco Brixs can be replicated across the African continent and beyond.
What's your top tip in helping your venture succeed?
Strong teams lay strong foundations. For me the major thing about starting up anything is having a strong team around you. Before you start your entrepreneurial journey gather the right people, then with the correct support and skill-sharing anything is possible.
What and who were your inspirations?
I think like so many young activists, Sir David Attenborough has had a big influence on really showing me the impact climate change is having and the massive risk it is to the world. The message that the Planet Earth and Blue Planet Series broadcast as they showed off the beauty of Mother Earth before hitting us with the harsh reality of climate change, for me was impossible to ignore.
I have also been inspired by amazing grassroots initiatives, including:
• Happy Pineapple. Set up by my brother Steve Bownds and his wife Tanya, this is an incredible ethical publishing house that uses vegetable-based ink, recycled paper, zero plastic and even banks ethically. • Afripads. This amazing initiative uses local employment to create reusable sanitary pads and has now been successfully driving positive change for over ten years. • Uganda Marathon. As part of the founding team, I’ve seen first-hand how Uganda Marathon keeps the incredible community spirit of Masaka at its heart, all of whom help 5,000 runners take part in their annual Race Like No Other.
Working together to make a difference
The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust is delighted to be partnering with Andy and the team at Eco Brixs at such a pivotal time in their organisational development. As they look to expand their operation through the launch of their first factory, support from QCT will enable them to grow and maximise their impact with their core operational costs supported. The work of Eco Brixs is already having a direct, positive impact on the local area, and the closed-loop system encourages buy-in from and collaboration with the local community. As the world searches for positive, sustainable solutions to environmental challenges, we are excited to embark on this relationship with Eco Brixs and see the potential of this organisation unfold.
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