This refugee camp in the Sahara recycles trash into new products

In the middle of the Sahara desert on Algeria’s western border, refugee camps with tens of thousands of people are completely dependent on humanitarian aid: water, food and other basic necessities are delivered by truck. Garbage, on the other hand, doesn’t really go away; Until recently, all the garbage from the camps nearby was dumped in the desert into an ever-growing pile of plastic. But at a new recycling center in one of the camps, refugees are now turning that plastic waste into furniture and other products they can use.

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]

Precious plastican organization with a DIY recycling system created by a Dutch designer who wanted to make recycling more accessible helped set up the center after the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR issued a call for action to solve the waste problem in the camps.

“They were looking for a way to solve two problems,” says Joseph Klatt, Managing Director of Precious Plastic. “First, they have a large refugee population there with a high unemployment rate. Everything is brought to the warehouses, so there is not much economic activity. And secondly, there is a lot of garbage in the camp. They were looking for a solution to turn the plastic waste processing into a new business and to offer the refugees an economic activity.”

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]

In late 2021, a UN team built a new building for the recycling center and Precious Plastic built all the necessary equipment, packed it in a shipping container and shipped it to Algeria. A machine shreds the plastic into tiny pieces. Other machines wash and dry them. Then the plastic pieces can be melted down and formed into new objects. In another approach, the plastic pieces can be spread out on a table, arranged in a pattern, and pressed into flat sheets that are used to make furniture.

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]

After some training, the refugees in the camp quickly began sorting and processing plastic and making products they needed, including school desks, benches and chairs, and tea serving sets.

“We had a couple of design sessions where we talked about what’s possible and how to use this plastic material,” says Klatt. “And then they were just super excited about coming up with ideas that made sense to them — furniture styles they’re used to and other ideas that they had.”

The UN pays a group of refugees to work at the recycling center during its first year of operation; after that, refugees become co-owners of the facility. The first products are sold to non-governmental organizations that support infrastructure such as schools in the camps and have the means to buy the furniture.

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]

It is not clear when the refugees will ever be able to leave the area; The Sahrawi people first fled Moroccan troops in the 1970s, and many people have spent their entire lives in the camps. But the project is a small attempt to improve life in the area. The same system could be used in other refugee camps.

“It’s almost like being on an island – a somewhat closed ecosystem,” says Klatt. “There is an opportunity to try to create a circular economy within this community.” This refugee camp in the Sahara recycles trash into new products


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