Building Green

April 17, 2020
NEW CONSTRUCTION UNICEF built this school with bricks by Conceptos Plásticos. The bricks fit together like Legos.
FRANK DEJONGH—UN0326203/UNICEF

Have you ever noticed a problem that you couldn’t figure out how to fix? Dr. Aboubacar Kampo has. He was living in Côte d’Ivoire, a country in Africa, where plastic is a major environmental issue. Côte d’Ivoire’s biggest city, Abidjan, creates more than 300 tons of plastic trash a day, and only about 5% of it is recycled. “How can we transform plastic into something useful?” Kampo wondered.

Kampo works for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. He asked his friends for help. “We had a competition over a weekend to figure out what could be done,” he told TIME for Kids. “We googled, looked for research, and then I stumbled across a company in Colombia.”

SCHOOL PRIDE New classrooms built with recycled plastic bricks make for smaller class sizes in Côte d’Ivoire.

FRANK DEJONGH—UN0326203/UNICEF

Colombia is a country in South America. Plastic pollution is a problem there, too. Conceptos Plásticos is the Colombian company that Kampo found online. It recycles plastic and turns it into big, Lego-like bricks. It uses them to build schools and homes for communities in need.

Kampo went to Colombia to learn about Conceptos Plásticos. He toured schools that were built with its bricks. He went to its factory. Isabel Cristina Gamez is a cofounder and the CEO of Conceptos Plásticos. She says, “Once Dr. Kampo understood the impact, he said, ‘We need to find a way to get you to Côte d’Ivoire.’ From that moment on, we worked together.” “Conceptos Plásticos gave us a solution,” Kampo says. He thought the company could help with more than just the plastic problem. It could also improve children’s access to education.

EARNING A LIVING In Côte d’Ivoire, people collect and sell plastic trash to earn money for their families.

FRANK DEJONGH—UN0326203/UNICEF

Making Room

According to UNICEF, more than 1½ million children in Côte d’Ivoire don’t go to school. One reason is that there aren’t enough classrooms. For kids who do go to school, classrooms are often severely overcrowded. UNICEF communications chief Sophie Chavanel says, “I stepped into a classroom and all these 3- and 4-year-olds were sitting on the floor. There wasn’t room to move around.”

In 2018, UNICEF built its first classrooms of recycled plastic in Abidjan, using bricks made in Colombia by Conceptos Plásticos.

Chavanel says that when a new room opened, the children gathered in the middle, “really tight, the same way they had before. The teacher said, ‘No! Now we have a big classroom. You can move! You can dance!’ Straight away, it made a difference in the quality of education.”

Tirangue Doumbia was the teacher that day. “People couldn’t believe that the classrooms were made of plastic,” she says. When TFK spoke with her, in March, Côte d’Ivoire schools had just closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

TRANSFORMING TRASH A woman sells plastic waste at the Conceptos Plásticos factory in Abidjan. It will be recycled into plastic bricks.

FRANK DEJONGH—UN0326203/UNICEF

Building the Future

At press time, UNICEF had built 27 classrooms in Côte d’Ivoire. It plans to have 528 built by the end of 2021. The new Conceptos Plásticos factory in Abidjan will soon be producing bricks from trash collected locally. The environmental impact is huge. UNICEF says it takes about five and a half tons of plastic to build a classroom. Construction takes just a few weeks.

WORK IN PROGRESS UNICEF leaders learn to build with plastic bricks. A hammer is the only tool needed.

FRANK DEJONGH—UN0326203/UNICEF

How have students responded to the project? “Kids love it,” Kampo says. “When we build a classroom, we build it with the community. The kids get to see how it’s built.” Unlike traditional construction, no cement is needed, he adds. “It’s just a hammer and those bricks.”