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The refugee camp recycling plastic waste into furniture

The Sahara Desert has become a central dumping ground for plastic waste from surrounding refugee camps. One of which, on the western border of Algeria, is making a dent in the trash by recycling it into furniture and useful items.

Like a lot of places around the globe, the Sahara Desert is chock full of plastic waste.

You’ll no doubt have seen documentaries and movies showing its majestic sandy dunes stretching some 9m kilometres, but you probably hadn’t heard about its growing expanses of throwaway plastic.

Without many alternatives to speak of, refugee camps in surrounding areas have been resigned to disposing of their waste within remote desert areas for some time. Many of them house tens of thousands of people at once, meaning the packaging from humanitarian supplies quickly adds up and doesn’t really have anywhere to go.

In a bid to begin addressing the problem, the UN Refugee Agency put out a call last year for solutions to begin recycling effectively throughout the region. ‘They were looking for a way to solve two problems,’ said Joseph Klatt, managing director at Precious Plastic – which answered the call.

He outlined how the UN was first searching for a way of dealing with high unemployment rates within camps, while simultaneously tackling the waste challenge. As he put it, ‘processing plastic and providing some economic activity for the refugees.’

With the idea of turning camps into their own circular economies, and in turn limiting the amount of waste being dumped and burned, Precious Plastic shipped recycling equipment directly to a facility in Algeria to monitor the results.

After a brief training period, refugees started using machines to shred huge bulks of plastic waste down and then wash and dry them. The resulting material continues to be used to form furniture like benches, school desks, and tables.

‘We had a few design sessions where we talked about what’s possible and how to use this plastic material,’ Klatt revealed. ‘Then they were just super stoked on coming up with ideas that made sense to them – furniture styles that they’re used to, and different ideas they had.’

After months of putting this into practice, the UN is now paying refugees to work at the recycling centre within the camp. Eventually, it plans to make them part owners in the whole operation and create a marketplace for sustainable furniture that can be sold and exported to NGOs globally.

Beyond this, the larger goal is to erect recycling facilities within most of the refugee camps in the Saharan region and beyond.

The harsh reality for the majority of those currently living in refugee camps, is that, in all likelihood, they will continue to do so for years. Projects like this, at least, will serve to give them better quality of living and future prospects.


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