Turning waste to wealth: In Nairobi, UN deputy chief lauds youth-led development solutions

turning-waste-to-wealth:-in-nairobi,-un-deputy-chief-lauds-youth-led-development-solutions

Kenya’s Nzambi Matee beams brightly, thrusting a brick forth to coincide with the click of the camera. It is no ordinary brick – the entire thing is made from plastic waste – and no ordinary photo, either. Behind her, stands the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Amina Mohammed. Ms. Mohammed rests her hands on Nzambi’s shoulder, undoubtedly proud of her. Around her are a dozen other young environmental advocates.

We’re ‘swamped by plastic’ 

“The challenge of plastic pollution affects us all. From the bottom of the seabed to the highest mountains, our world is swamped by harmful plastic,” noted Ms. Mohammed later, at the conclusion of the UN Environment Assembly session in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi on Wednesday.

“We all have a role to play in the solution,” she said.

Nzambi has, indeed, been playing her part.

On a normal day, she would have been spending her time surrounded by plastic waste, innovatively turning a would-be menacing problem into a sustainable solution. No soil. No kiln. Just plastic bottles, collected from households allover Nairobi, and turned into beautiful, sturdy paving and building blocks.

UNEP Young Champion of the Earth winner, Nzambi Matee, at her workshop where she turns plastic waste into bricks.

© UNEP

UNEP Young Champion of the Earth winner, Nzambi Matee, at her workshop where she turns plastic waste into bricks.

On Tuesday 1 March, she was one of more than a dozen young environmental advocates who met with the deputy UN chief on the margins of the Fifth UN Environment Assembly’s deliberations. Ms. Mohammed, who has taken keen interest in youth-led innovative solutions, earlier been to another youth-led initiative, Adopt a River for Sustainable Development (Adopt-a-River), whose goal to ease the global water crisis through focused activities on freshwater ecosystems at a local level.

The initiative works to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through protecting, restoring, and sustaining local freshwater ecosystems.

“As I toured this river restoration project, I was struck by how plastic is both an icon of human ingenuity and a flag bearer of unsustainable production and consumption. Today, no corner of the planet is left untouched by plastic pollution,” Ms. Mohammed later told the Assembly, noting that “due to the lack of efficient waste management systems, a large share of this plastic ends up in our oceans – 11 million tonnes every year at current estimates.”

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed meets with young environmental advocates in the UNEP garden.

© UNEP/Daniel Getachew

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed meets with young environmental advocates in the UNEP garden.

‘A welcome step’ towards ending plastic pollution

The next day, Nzambi must have been smiling even more brightly as Heads of State, Ministers of environment and other representatives from 175 nations endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024.

The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.

“The planet deserves a multilateral solution that speaks from source to sea,” said Ms. Mohammed at the conclusion of the Assembly, adding, “A legally binding global agreement on plastic pollution will be a truly welcome first step.”

With her recycling and upcycling work, Nzambi has put herself squarely at the end of this plastic lifecycle, while creating employment opportunities out of a problem that has drawn global attention.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed visits the Adopt-a-River initiative at Kawangware Primary School, Nairobi to witness, first-hand, ecosystem restoration efforts.

© UNEP/Artan Jama

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed visits the Adopt-a-River initiative at Kawangware Primary School, Nairobi to witness, first-hand, ecosystem restoration efforts.

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