Plastic waste has become a major problem in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé clogging up drains and rivers and causing flooding in the city whenever it rains.
Cameroon’s government has been trying to tackle the country’s plastic pollution troubles for years, but with little success.
Cheaper than other alternatives, plastic bags and bottles are popular in a place where the average income is less than 500 Central African francs (cfa) ($5) a day, and laws aimed at curbing the use and sale of disposable plastics remain ineffective.
Yaounde’s streets are littered with piles of plastic bags and bottles and residents are worried.
“When it rains, the river floods and the plastic bottles come all the way to our houses. They also cause us to get sick and they also emit a foul smell. We cannot sit in our compounds because of the polluted air, we only breathe in bad air,” said one resident Evelyn Massock.
An initiative by one of the country’s most prominent personalities, retired Cameroonian footballer Roger Milla is hoping to solve the problem by turning plastic waste into building material.
Milla is already famous for being the oldest goal scorer – at age 42 – in World Cup history.
And now the footballer is proving an unlikely hero in Cameroon’s struggle against climate change-related flooding as well as pollution.
Through his organisation Coeur d’Afrique (Heart of Africa), which helps abandoned children, Milla is fighting pollution, while also tackling youth unemployment.
In a collaboration between local councils and garbage-collection company Hysacam, Coeur d’Afrique employs over 300 youths in various Yaounde neighbourhoods to regularly collect plastic from garbage cans, gutters and streams.
They work three days a week for 2,500 cfa ($5) a day.
“My foundation which deals with the environment came here to help clear all this waste, and clear the river of plastic waste which has been affecting the local population and also allow water to flow as it should,” he said.
The waste is picked up by Hysacam and sorted, then another group of young people – different from those collecting the plastic – melt it down in a large tank over a wood fire.
They later add sand to the molten plastic and pour the hot mixture into moulds.
The process doesn’t need water and the slabs set and dry at room temperature within 15 minutes, as opposed to the 24 hours it takes conventional sand-and-cement-based products, according to the Director General of Coeur d’ Afrique, Arsel Etoundi.
“We think that it’s a good project for the future of tour country, especially when it comes to the fight against pollution. It’s also good because this is also a source of revenue and job creation for young Cameroonian youths,” Director General for Coeur D’ Afrique, Arsel Etoundi.
The plastic slabs are cheaper than concrete ones, costing 3,500 cfa ($5.40) per square meter compared to 5,000 cfa ($8.50).
And, approved as sustainable by the country’s National Civil Engineering Laboratory, they are environmentally friendly and waterproof, meaning they can also be used in marshy areas and in the building of septic tanks.
The recycled slabs have already been used by the Yaounde city council for various projects and by the National Olympic sports committee in the construction of the national handball field, officials say.
“As a former major star, he wanted to use his platform to lend his voice to the fight against pollution in Cameroon. He also wanted to help the youth of Cameroon who are in the street and wanted to help them find jobs,” said Pancrace Fegue, a Senior Official at Coeur d’Afrique.
So far over 750 youths have been trained in the process of making the plastic slabs.
The project aims to train a total of 2,500 people by the end of 2017, according to officials from the foundation.