Two women are changing the construction landscape with plastic bricks – and creating a new economy while doing it.
When you combine sustainability with any established system like construction there’s a trend of calling it disruptive. But sisters Kedibone and Kekeletso Tsiloane from South Africa is more likely to fall under the category of changemakers, thanks to plastic bricks.
The two has done something that is highly impactful, they helped create an ecologically and economically sustainable brick for the construction segment that also uses recyclable material (in this case plastic) that has a wide-reaching effect.
Not only are they a solely female-owned business within the construction sector, they are solely black-owned and also the plastic waste used to manufacture their bricks comes from waste collectors in South Africa.
Usually, these collectors pick up the waste and resell it to plants. Now, around 50 waste collectors are regularly providing plastic to the sister’s company Ramtsilo Manufacturing and Construction.
Their father started a construction business in the late 90s, and that is often the case with family-run enterprises, everyone gets involved. Kedibone and Kekelestso were no different, and they were quickly introduced to the back-end of the business and one thing stood out – how much money was spent on bricks and bricklaying.
To counteract this, as the business grew, so did ways to save money. At first, they used cement to create their own bricks for construction outcomes, but soon Kedibone and Kekeletso wanted to set themselves apart. It was speaking to a waste picker that really cemented a new idea.
Use recycled plastic in brick creation, to be sold at mass.
It starts with the fact that bricks either contain 20% or 30% recycled plastic. The plastic is from waste collectors and when collecting the plastic, it creates employment opportunities where the collectors are able to get paid for what they deliver.
The physical product in turn uses virtually no water to manufacture. The bricks use sand and plastic as the binding material, so there’s also no cement used in the manufacturing of the bricks.
“From a structural perspective the bricks have the same look and feel as standard bricks, but in terms of quality, the bricks are actually much stronger. Because of the plastic element, it’s not as porous as traditional bricks and it should lessen cracks on walls.”
While making the bricks already uses recycling to ensure fewer plastic floats around, building with the bricks is actually where there are long-term benefits for the individual using it.
“Plastic is known for its insolation capabilities, so potentially you save on your energy bill,” says Kekeletso.
In cold weather, it means there will be less energy used to warm the home and keep the heat in.
In South Africa, the benefits are multi-faceted as the country faces an energy crisis.
One of the major breakthroughs with the bricks is the fact that they do not seep plastic. As a result, it is a lot more sustainable.
They hope to see the bricks used more in low-cost housing in their home country.
The bricks are now available to buy in South Africa at popular chain stores. This is a big win for the sisters and the workers at their brick factory.
But mass availability took years to perfect. According to Kedibone in 2016 it still took them about a year to develop their bricks, way before they could even dream of it being available in the market space.
“The research and development had Kekeletso working during the week to see what works. She’d then present her findings at the end of the week.”
In this phase, they realized that recycled plastic used in this way had a lot of pros, which is why they opted to continue using discarded plastic.
According to them, waste plastic is categorized in different ways, and their bricks can use recyclable and unrecycled plastics widening the kinds of material used in manufacturing their product.
After this, they had to consider brick standards, but in South Africa, there was some ease thanks to the South African Burau of Standards. They then decided on three brick sizes.
Pavement bricks, maxi bricks and standard stock bricks. Bricks for paving had to be the strongest, able to withstand a lot of wear, and these contain 20% plastic with the rest made from traditional materials.
The other bricks they offer contain 30% recycled plastic.
What makes this so good for them is the fact that the bricks don’t really come off as that different, making it alluring for buyers.
“One problem was to be able to say that the bricks can withstand fire. When people hear plastic, they think the bricks will melt. It cannot because of the other additives in the bricks,” says Kedibone.
The bricks also weigh more than standard cement bricks. According to Kekeletso, that means the bricks have a higher compressive strength.
“This means our stock bricks can be used from the foundation and upwards.”
According to her standard cement bricks in the stock brick market of South Africa weighs about 2kg, and theirs 3kgs.
“The structural integrity also allows the bricks to be used in single and double volume building.”
The maxi bricks are best suited for boundary walls and the paving bricks for ground use.
As their success grows, so does Ramtsilo Manufacturing and Construction innovation, and they already started including waste sand from the mining sector into new bricks to further their love for waste reduction in South Africa.
In the end, what they want as a collective is less, and ultimately zero, plastic waste ending up in landfills or rivers.
To hear more from the sisters themselves they will be part of an informative webinar hosted by EIT where they discuss their sustainable bricks and their legacy.
Eco-brick Sisters: Engineering, Sustainability and Entrepreneurship takes place on 25 November where Kekeletso and Kedibone will discuss the circular plastic recycling economy they are apart of, as well as the benefits of sustainable construction.
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