Photos, clockwise from top left: ISK teacher Maciej Sudra explains the process of upcycling plastic to elementary students on campus; a Plastiki Rafiki recycled plastic and tetra pack "flasher" to make fences visible for wildlife at the Loisaba Conservancy in Kenya; upcycled Plastiki Rafiki products like school schools and skateboards; machines used in upcycling plastics at the ISK campus.
A group of students and educators at the International School of Kenya (ISK) in Nairobi is doing something incredible. They are removing plastic from the natural environment, upcycling the plastic into useful products, and partnering with local communities to create immense change. What started as a small high school club has grown, over the course of five years, into a large co-curricular endeavor with connections to the curricular program, and into a social enterprise providing hundreds of jobs at plastics workshops throughout the country.
Welcome to the story of Plastiki Rafiki! When I heard about this project, I knew I had to interview the teachers and students involved. Not only do I care (a lot!) about plastics and finding ways to manage our plastic problem. I also care a lot about ISK. I worked there from 2010 - 2015 and two of my daughters graduated from high school there; the school and community has a very special place in our family story, and it has been wonderful to connect with current teachers and students to learn about this powerful service project.
In a nutshell, as teacher Maciej Sudra explains in the video below, a group of students heard about how to upcycle plastics and researched machine designs online. Inspired, they worked with teachers and local staff to build some machines and experiment with upcycling plastic into new products such as key chains, jewelry and plant pots.
They loved the creative work involved with this process, as well as the positive impact on the environment by removing plastic waste from local communities. And so the project grew.
Now the club has dozens of members and there are multiple Plastiki Rafiki workshops throughout the country. In Swahili, by the way, the word rafiki means "friend". Companies and groups order items (examples include trophies, medals and wildlife flashers to use on fences at conservancies to help make the fences visible to wildlife), and the orders are filled by community members working at the local workshops. ISK students coordinate the design and prototyping of all products, as well as the handling of orders, client communication and billing.
Photo: Examples of trophies and medals made by Plastiki Rafiki for the Faraja Cancer Support Trust Whitewater Rafting Challenge.
In addition, middle and elementary school students at ISK are learning about Plastiki Rafiki and classes regularly visit the design room at school to see the machines in action and learn about plastics.
Check out the interviews with lead teacher Maciej Sudra and ISK student leaders to learn more about this incredible and multi-layered service experience and community partnership. You can also check out the Plastiki Rafiki website HERE.
It would be amazing to see more schools follow ISK in building this type of program. I can see how all of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals link to the work that Plastiki Rafiki is doing, and it is an excellent example of what happens when we allow students to lead and create positive change.
Resources for starting an upcycling project at your school:
1. https://plastikirafiki.com/: The ISK Plastiki Rafiki website.
2. https://preciousplastic.com: On this site you will find a wealth of information about how to upcycle plastics, and you can even buy starter kits for your school or use plans to build your own machines. Some chapters of Precious Plastics will come to schools to run workshops, too. If you do a google search, you should be able to see if there's a group near you.
3. Article: how to get started with a classroom/club/school upcycling project, especially for younger learners.
4. Article: some good questions to think about to get your upcycling project started, along with some examples.
5. Courses: Courses about upcycling furniture, fashion and more. There is a small fee for these courses, but they could be a good starting point for teachers to explore some ideas and personal passions.
6. Article: Simple ways to upcycle plastic bottles for your home or classroom.