Let’s Squarry in Cape Verde!

Squarry is a project about developing low tech recycling machines. In this blog, you can read about our adventure in Cape Verde to set up a production space for recycling plastic bottles into tiles.

Production space for plastic recycling in Cape Verde

PART 1: settin’ up the pace!

Santo Antâo is not just one of the largest islands of Cape Verde, it certainly is also one of the most beautiful. The west and south may be barren, barely inhabited by no other than goats, but when driving along the east coast it are the steep and imminent mountains that take your breath away. Idyllic green and lush valleys penetrate the mountain range, sloping down in the ferocious but crystal clear sea. The inhabitants of Santo Antâo live a peaceful and mostly rural life: the fertile soil is providing them with almost everything they need, from rice and vegetables until local brewed Groque. Plastic consumption, left alone plastic pollution, made its entrance with the arrival of nature-yearning tourists.

It’s in this breathtaking scenery where Better Future Factory has been commissioned to set up the first factory to transform plastic bottles in a low-tech manner into sanitation tiles. Weeks before our arrival at this West-African archipelago we already shipped the equipment, while at the spot a team of very cheerful locals worked hard to finish the production space on time.

Coast of Santo Antâo (left) and preparing the production space (right)

Of course, ‘time’ is something relative, especially in a tropical island setting, so when we finally arrived the production facility was not even close to finalization. There was no electricity, water was disconnected, and the required furniture had to be sought together from a cramped sea container. At least the whole building got freshly painted and provided with a logo displaying the collaboration between Netherlands and Cape Verde. Luckily, our experience from Angola and Sierra Leone where nothing goes accordingly, has made us true Macgyvers, so even when half of the requirements to start operating were missing, we still managed to continue. In await of the much needed high voltage power current to process the plastic bottles into small flakes, we drew back on an ancient tool: scissors! A bucket with water borrowed from a nearby restaurant, worked very well for the cleaning of the bottles, be it that we first had to cut them into halves to fit. Cooling trays were improvised with remnants of steel-framed benches, and fine cheesecloth made it possible to naturally ventilate the space without dust entering. But by the end of our stay, the high voltage power got connected and the machines were ready to rumble!

Cleaning the bottles

Our trainees, two guys and a girl, were so dedicated to do the job well they sometimes hesitated, fearing for mistakes. But you cannot learn without making mistakes, a concept which they gradually seemed to understand. We literally had to tell them to do less of an effort when assembling the mold, as it proved to be counterproductive! The enthusiasm of the trainees and the magic of Squarry worked contagious on locals involved in the fix-up of the factory, eager to participate in the preservation of their emerald green island, longing to earn an additional income. One young fisherman — he told us he once blew up a white shark using dynamite- had revealed himself into a proper bottle collector; every day he came by the factory with a wheelbarrow full of discarded bottles to provide the team with enough raw material. After a couple of days, when the trainees made their first tiles, he couldn’t believe his eyes; “ Are these tiles really made with these dirty bottles I collected for you? WOW, that’s amazing!”

Preparing the molds (left and middle) and the bottle collector (right)

PART 2: Gettin’ a taste for baking

Even though the equipment didn’t function properly yet, our production team to be started to understand the process of tile-making; they were only very worried about the results, as they differ from the tiles made with all equipment functioning properly.

You can imagine their excitement when the shredder finally got connected; they even wanted to skip their normally very important lunch, grateful they didn’t have to cut more bottles by hand, eager to watch how this machine would do the job. And they weren’t the only ones; in fact, during the whole setup & training period many locals curiously peeked through windows, wandered inside the space when they had the chance, awaited us at the beginning of the days, and approached us wondering what we were doing. At the day of the formal opening, their patience finally paid off under a cup of celebration cake and other locally made snacks. It was great to see how our trainees flourished, being appointed as the designated experts to explain the process, proud to be part of it.

Using the shredder to cut the bottles
Shredder bottles (left) and locals peeking through the windows (right)

Not only the quantity of produced tiles increased significantly with the shredder being operational, but also the quality. Interestingly enough, most locals liked the rougher and dirtier tiles we made before more, as they were brownish instead of white, but this can also be attributed to baking time and temperatures. With all equipment somehow operating, the water still wasn’t connected, the trainees were finally in the occasion to produce a series of tiles, contributing to the understanding they need to experiment a lot before reaching the desired output.

The best way to reach a constant quality is by monitoring the process in all its facets; so from the collection of bottles, washing, shredding and subsequently melting into tiles and corresponding finalization. Noting down data seemed rather new for our pupils and we really had to push them to write these down, explaining it would work in their benefit to get a grip on quality and was not intended as a means to control personnel. Especially the weighing of flakes -involving some calculations- caused headaches, but at the end at least one trainee got the importance and was directly bombarded by his colleagues as ‘chief of quality-control’.

At the last day of their traineeship, they each had to make a tile from scratch without our interference, check the quality, and clean up the machines and equipment. Particularly the operating and cleaning of the shredder formed a challenge, but with joint effort they managed. An expression of victory on their faces was priceless: they finally got the taste for tile-baking!

Succesfully baked tiles

After the handout of the certificates stating their accomplishment, pride radiated from their faces and we all went to celebrate with Groque and fried morene at the beach. One of them almost trembled over a discarded plastic bottle, but instead of throwing it elsewhere he kept it and said: “ Once, these bottles were worthless to me, but now they mean the world to me, as they provide for me and my family and showed me that there are possibilities to bring about change I never thought of before”.

Handing out the certificates