This refugee camp in the Sahara recycles waste into new products

In the middle of the Sahara desert on Algeria’s western border, refugee camps of tens of thousands of people are completely dependent on humanitarian aid: water, food and other basic necessities come in by trucks. Trash, on the other hand, doesn’t really go away; until recently, all the waste from the camps nearby was dumped in the desert on 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 Plastic, an organization with a DIY recycling system developed by a Dutch designer who wanted to make recycling more accessible, helped set up the center after the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, launched a call for solutions to help with the waste challenge at the camps.

“They were looking for a way to solve two problems,” said Joseph Klatt, president of Precious Plastic. “First, they have a large refugee population there with high unemployment. Everything is brought to the camps, 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 create a new business by processing the plastic waste and providing the refugees with some economic activity.”

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]In late 2021, a UN team constructed a new building to house 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 small 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, patterned and pressed into flat sheets used to make furniture.

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]After some training, refugees in the camp soon began sorting and processing plastic and making products they needed, including school desks, benches and chairs, and tea serving sets.

“We’ve had a few design sessions where we talked about what’s possible and how we can 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 were used to and different ideas they had.”

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

[Photo: courtesy Precious Plastic]It is not clear when refugees will ever be able to leave the area; Sahrawis first fled Moroccan troops in the 1970s, and many people have lived in the camps all their lives. But the project is a small effort to improve life in the area. The same system could be used in other refugee camps.

“It’s almost an island context — a somewhat closed ecosystem,” Klatt says. “There is an opportunity to try and create a circular economy within that community.”

This post This refugee camp in the Sahara recycles waste into new products was original published at “”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.