In the middle of the Sahara desert, on the western border of Algeria, refugee camps hosting tens of thousands of people depend entirely on humanitarian aid: water, food and other basic supplies arrive trucks. Waste, on the other hand, does not really leave; until recently, all the trash from the camps was dumped nearby in the desert in an ever-growing pile of plastic. But at a new recycling center in one of the camps, the refugees are now turning that plastic waste into furniture and other products they can use.
Precious Plastic, an organization with a DIY recycling system developed by a Dutch designer who wanted to make recycling more accessible, helped set up the center after the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, launched a call for solutions to help address the waste challenge at the camps.
“They were looking for a way to solve two problems,” says Joseph Klatt, chief executive of Precious Plastic. “First, they have a large refugee population there with high unemployment. Everything is brought to the camps, so there is not much economic activity. And incidentally, there is a lot of waste in the camp. They were looking for a solution to create a new business from the treatment of plastic waste and provide an economic activity to the refugees. »
In late 2021, a UN team constructed a new building to house the recycling center, and Precious Plastic built all the necessary equipment, packed it into a shipping container, and shipped it to Algeria. A machine shreds the plastic into small pieces. Other machines wash and dry them. Then the plastic pieces can be melted down and shaped into new objects. In another approach, the plastic parts can be spread out on a table, arranged in a pattern, and pressed into flat sheets used to make furniture.
After training, refugees in the camp soon began sorting and processing plastic and making the products they needed, including desks, benches and chairs, and tea sets.
“We had a few design sessions where we discussed what is possible and how to use this plastic material,” Klatt explains. “And then they were just thrilled to come up with ideas that made sense to them – furniture styles they’re used to and different ideas they had.”
The UN pays a group of refugees to work at the recycling center for the first year of its operation; thereafter, the refugees will become co-owners of the establishment. The first products will be sold to non-governmental organizations that support infrastructure, such as camp schools, and have the means to buy the furniture.
It is unclear when the refugees will ever be able to leave the area; Sahrawis first fled Moroccan troops in the 1970s, and many people have lived in the camps their entire lives. But the project is only a small attempt to improve life in the area. The same system could be used in other refugee camps.
“It’s almost like an island setting – a somewhat closed ecosystem,” Klatt explains. “There is an opportunity to try to create a circular economy within this community.”