A house out of recycled plastic

A stand-alone house made of plastic bottles in Nairobi's Kibra slum.[Edward Kiplimo,Standard]


Using one of the world’s problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up’s mission to develop affordable housing from 100 per cent recycled plastic.

Since 1950, more than nine billion tonnes of plastic have been produced globally, of which only nine per cent is recycled, according to building tech company Othalo, while almost a billion people live in slums.

Othalo has partnered with UN-Habitat – the United Nations programme for human settlements and sustainable urban development – to create components to build three demonstration homes to help tackle Africa’s housing shortage.

“In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the immediate need for low-cost housing is 160 million units,” the company says.

This is expected to increase to 360 million by 2050 as a result of rapid urbanisation. But with today’s plastic waste, Othalo believes more than one billion houses can be built.

In 2021, the first factory producing elements such as partitions for walls, ceilings and floors from recycled plastic will be built in Kenya.

UN-Habitat says an estimated 60 per cent of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, “which mostly ended up in dumpsites creating a massive environmental challenge,” the agency adds.

UN-Habitat Deputy Executive Director Victor Kisob said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to “promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all”.

Othalo’s process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tonnes of recycled plastic.

A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.

Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo’s factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Nairobi, Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with Sintef, a 70-year-old independent research organisation in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at University of Tromsø.

Almost seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050. More than 90 per cent of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

“In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanisation will be dramatic,” warns UN-Habitat.

Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.

Mindsets, policies and approaches towards urbanisation need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.

Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the World Economic Forum’s Pioneers of Change Summit 2020.

The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.

“We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality,” said Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum’s Head of Strategic Intelligence.

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