By Joseph Maina

In Kenya, as in many other countries around the world, the war against COVID-19 is facing an emergent problem of incorrect dumping of personal protective equipment (PPEs), leading to serious environmental pollution.

Research scientist Gilbert Atuga from the Kenya Marine Research and Fisheries Institute (KMFRI) says that more than 7 million COVID-19 masks end up on land and water systems each month, translating to more than 28 thousand kilograms of plastics introduced to nature monthly from facemasks alone.

“It is with this in mind that PPE waste should be recognized as an emerging problem amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” Atuga states. “The problem is exacerbated further by a lack of proper waste management systems in most counties in Kenya”.

He adds that masks and other safety products cannot be recycled easily due to fear of infection of coronavirus by plastics recyclers, which calls for attention to this unique type of waste.

The efforts of Francis Thuti, a resident of Nanyuki town, Central Kenya, may just be the much-needed solution to the PPEs waste challenge. He has devised a way of recycling COVID-19 masks to produce cabro blocks for use in walkways and car parking spaces.

Thuti, a self-proclaimed researcher and environmentalist sought to find a lasting solution to the problem. It started as a curious moment when he learned of the challenge of recycling COVID-19 disposable masks and other PPEs, when he burned a sample mask and discovered that its combustion was no different from other common plastics.

Thuti says he came up with the project as one way of ridding the environment of the mounting challenge of COVID-19 masks, which are daily being dumped after use, posing a rising threat to human health and the ecosystem.

But how does he do it? To begin with, Thuti has enlisted the services of reformed former street boys and other waste collectors in the town to collect and deliver the wastes to his site.

Francis Thuti sweeping a freshly constructed walkway in Nanyuki, made with his cabro

He also buys from the boys all sorts of commonly available plastics, including disused car fenders and e-waste from discarded electronic equipment collected from the 129-acre dumpsite in Nanyuki town. He uses these together with waste masks to make cabros out of the waste.

He mixes waste polymers, which include assorted plastics, with discarded glass then pound the fine dust. The mixture is then heated in metal drums.

He heats the mixture for between two to 3 hours, to a temperature ranging between 360-420 degrees Celsius.

The resulting liquid is then poured into smaller metal boxes, where it is polished, cooled, and shaped into attractive cabro pieces.

‘For a square metre of this cabro, I use 100 kilograms of waste, mixed in a ratio,” Thuti said. “I use 35 kilograms of plastic paper and masks, which include the commonly used carrier bags, 35 kilograms of assorted plastic, and 30 kilograms of waste glass, which we grind to a coarse texture”.

Out of the 100 kilogrammes used to construct a square metre of cabro, Thuti uses 2 kilogrammes of COVID-19 masks.

The community is warming up to his cabro product, attracted by its strength and also the pricing, which is at par with ordinary cabro, he intimates.

Samples of his cabro products have been subjected to tests at a government laboratory, with the results showing them to be sturdier than conventional mortar cabro.

According to the lab test result issued by the Nyeri office of the Materials Testing and Research Division of the State Department of Infrastructure, results of the test on Thuti’s cabro showed a comprehensive strength of up to 16.8 Newtons per square millimeter (N/mm2).

The Cabros being displayed
A freshly constructed pathway, made with Thuti’s cabro, in Nanyuki, Kenya

“This means that the cabro we produce here is almost three times the strength of “conventional cabro,” Thuti told ScienceAfrica at his base of operations in Nanyuki town, about 159 kilometers north east of Nairobi metropolitan.

 “The disposable masks are made of the same polymer as the carrier bags,” Thuti said. “The mask is tossed whole into the mix, complete with the metal fastener.”

Affirming the public’s confidence in Thuti’s cabro pieces was Mr Muchiri Gitonga the Director of Communications in the office of the Governor, Laikipia County.

“The cabros are very good,” Gitonga told Science Africa.

“We have used them in Nanyuki Water and Sanitation Company (NAWASCO) compound, and the results are satisfactory. He truly deserves an award. One of the key benefits of his project is the reduction of solid waste, by putting the discarded products to better use for the benefit of the community”.

But he faces some limitations. Thuti says that the demand is high but his capacity to produce enough meet the demand is low. In addition, he says “most people in this town just throw their masks haphazardly. The town does not have designated places where people can dispose of the masks after use. This makes collection difficult and unhealthy to the boys who collect them.”

As a result, his efforts, though significant, have not been able to rid the town of all mask pollution. “I would like to appeal to the country government and residents of the town to work with us to ensure that our environment is safe from such medical and other waste. Recycling is the way to go but there is need for organized waste separation to avoid risks,” he says.