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The Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

The Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

News from the Algalita POPS Youth Summit 

Africa’s biggest urban slum – Kibera – in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, has serious humanitarian issues: lack of potable water and formalized sewage systems are two biggies. But a clever low-tech water filtration project, requiring large numbers of plastic water bottles, could alleviate these problems.

There’s no shortage of bottles, according to Nairobi high schooler, Jacob Smith. He says plastic water bottles are everywhere, tossed from car windows by those wary of Kenya’s drinking water – much of which is high in fluoride. Smith is on the Brookhouse International School’s Environment Committee, which amassed a whopping ten-thousand PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles in the past year alone.

This water bottle collection project won the committee a place at Algalita’s Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions (POPS) International Youth Leadership Summit in California earlier this month. POPS trains students on how to reduce plastic trash and also to get the word out about the growing problem of ocean plastic debris.

Because while Nairobi may be inland, a huge amount of the nine million tons of plastic that’s estimated will dump from land into the oceans this year, starts out in places like Kibera with no formalized waste disposal infrastructure. Air and water borne plastic easily makes it’s way to our oceans where is comprises more than 80% of trash.

The Brookhouse bottles became part of the wastewater recycling at a pilot – Town Centre – in Kibera. The center is the brainchild of Human Needs Project (HNP), a California based collaborative which developed the plastic water bottle filtration system.  The center is designed to operate as a fully self-contained entity – providing up to 5,000 Kibera residents a day with the essentials – water, flushing toilets, showers and laundry services. http://humanneedsproject.org/

The first order of business in self-containment meant boring a well so the center would have a clean water source. Kibera residents buy trucked in water, which must be boiled because it’s usually not clean enough to drink.  The center filters the well water to ensure it’s not only safe to consume but also has acceptable minimal levels of fluoride. About 19 million Kenyans (42% of the population) suffer from fluorosis – exposure to excess fluoride.

Just as important in the sustainability stakes is the recycling of the center’s wastewater, so as not to exacerbate Kibera’s sanitation problems. The slum is known for its ad hoc sewage system – flying toilets – plastic bags of poo that are flung out of shack windows at night.
This is where all the plastic bottles come in – one hundred and fifty thousand to be exact. That’s the number project overseer, Chris Sutton, of Redhorse Constructors, calculated it would take to make all the plavels – mesh onion bags stuffed with cut up recycled plastic water bottles.

The genius of the plavels, is the high surface area to volume ratio that all the shredded plastic bottles provide. These expanded surfaces mean there’s a lot of real estate for pathogen-eating bacteria to set up shop and go to work.

Such bacteria occur naturally in all water and effluent. So the center’s waste (grey) water and sewage (black) water, gets cleaned by its own microbiotic hitchhikers, without needing a lot of expensive chemical additives.  Plavels are placed throughout a series of filtration tanks, producing water that’s used to flush the center’s 15 toilets. In theory the treated water should be clean enough to drink, but Sutton says the level of monitoring to guarantee potable water is beyond the scope of the project at this stage. Though hopefully the water will soon be used to irrigate crops, and the school football field adjacent to the slum.

When this pilot Town Center is fully utilized by residents and financially sustainable, HNP hopes to open centers in the 12 other villages that collectively make up Kibera. This could mean providing amenities for the 200-300 thousand people who live in the slum.
Such ambitions will take a lot of plastic water bottles, which is where the Brookhouse environment committee comes in. The students are keen to take their plastic water bottle project beyond the collection capabilities of their 750-student school.

These Kenyan high school students presenting their plastic collection project during POPS – at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point – brought HNP’s Town Center plastic water bottle filtration full circle – from California to the slums of Kibera and back.  Reducing plastic trash while providing essential services to those most in need, is undoubtedly an environmental and humanitarian win-win. Not to mention the ecological double-play of using recycled plastic water bottles to filter water.

(This post originally appeared on Algalita. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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One Response

  1. Chris says:

    Great concept overall … only you did not quite say what is being done. Also, it would make more sense to keep poop out of the loop, by installing Urine-diverting Dry Toilets (inodoroseco.blogspot.com, http://www.ecosanres.org). Check out Sanergy’s UDDTs in Kibera! (sanergy.wordpress.com/)
    Any photos of the project?
    Let me know if I can be of any help.

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