An eco lodge built from plastic
Debbie is no ordinary recycler – she’s turned tons of rubbish into a luxurious lodge using her cleverly designed eco-bricks
THE home is roomy and comfortable, with cream walls, an open-plan dining area and shiny countertops with a marble-like appearance in the spacious kitchen. Outside, the pool has attractive paving and stylish pillars and you can see why the place was once a popular guest lodge.
It’s now a retirement home and there’s no shortage of style and luxury for the residents to enjoy in their twilight years.
Which sounds great but not all that exceptional, right? But get this: all the materials used to build and furbish this building in Port Edward on the KwaZuluNatal south coast are made from recycled waste – 258 tons of it, to be exact.
And it was built from scratch by the property’s owner, uber-recycler Debbie Sharp, a woman on a mission to reduce waste and create jobs at the same time.
“Outside needed 186 tons of rubbish and inside about 72 tons,” she says. “I actually ran out of rubbish at one stage.”
Our trash is her treasure, says Debbie (59), who’s turned her passion into a company, Recycle for Africa.
She holds out one of the building blocks of her success. It looks like a typical hollow concrete brick but peer a little closer and you notice bits of plastic sticking out of the moulded block, which has an almost spongy texture.
This is what she calls “Debbie’s ecoblock” and it came about when she had a light-bulb moment back in 2011. After the local municipality hadn’t collected waste for a few months, she decided it would be cheaper and far more ecologically sound to produce something from the muck instead of lugging it to the local landfill site in many laborious trips.
So she developed her block and now wants to roll out the idea to the rest of the country and help ease South Africa’s overburdened landfills at the same time.
“I’ve got the machine, I’ve got the patent, I’ve already done it,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s recyclable or non-recyclable waste, my machine pulverises it into a substance we can use to cast blocks.
“People can make a living from selling them and the community can build houses.”
The possibilities are endless, she says.
BRICK-MAKING was hardly in her life plan. For many years Debbie travelled across Africa, working as an HIV-Aids activist. “I became involved with adult basic education and training (ABET) which brought me into contact with Madiba’s daughter Maki Mandela, who runs a charity linked to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. That’s how I got involved in the HIV side of things,” she explains.
But after five years of extensive travel, time apart from her family started to take its toll so Debbie returned home to
husband Stanley (60) and their kids, Leigh (38), Glynn (36), Micheal (26) and William (23).
The idea for the eco-block project started in 2010 when tons of uncollected municipal waste began piling up on her property. “Back then the Port Edward municipality didn’t always service the lodge so things got pretty bad,” she says.
“I had empty chicken coops so I’d keep the waste in them while we waited for the municipality. Before I knew it I had about 36 tons of waste. I thought there had to be something I could do with the stuff.”
What if she crushed the waste bit by bit using the blenders in her kitchen, she thought? “So that’s what I did – little by little I crushed the waste like you would food.”
It became what she calls “fluff” – nonrecyclable waste and plastic that are blended into a fluffy substance.
Then, using a hand drill, she mixed the fluff with cement to try to create a brick but it just kept falling apart.
When she tried to pick the brains of her civil engineer husband, he thought she’d lost her mind.
“He said, ‘How can you convert waste? It’s never going to work’.” That only made her more determined. She went on the internet and ordered a matchbox- sized polymer – an adhesive-like product that would bind the waste – from a man in India after researching binder catalysts, substances that hold waste together.
After nine months she was ready to test her idea. She combined the fluff with just a teaspoon of the polymer mixture, which was enough to mould nine bricks. Then she went to bed but she was so curious about whether it would hold that she couldn’t sleep.
“At 3am I headed for the chicken coop in my pyjamas. I picked up a block and dropped it. It didn’t break; it just bounced. So I climbed onto a 220-litre drum and dropped it from that height. Again, it didn’t break.
“By now I was getting excited. I then climbed on top of the chicken coop and dropped it from there. Once again it bounced. I climbed down and howled like a baby for about two hours. Patrick Rheenda, one of my staff members who’s now a partner in my company, has his house there. When he woke up at 5am he came out and asked, ‘Ma’am, are you alright?’ I said, ‘I’m fine. Look! It’s working’,” she recalls.
“Later when Stanley saw it and said this is a pretty good block, I knew I’d done something right. It was the assurance I needed.”
Convinced she was onto a winner, Debbie made a bold move, investing more than R2 million of her pension into buying customised machinery to make
They then cast a series of blocks which were approved by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). The blocks can be used to build RDP housing and other buildings, she says.
They were also used to build her lodgeturned-home for the elderly. Patrick (68), a builder by trade, started construction of the lodge using the eco-blocks and all sorts of other recyclable material and Stanley soon joined in. Within nine months, the project was practically finished.
Debbie has since patented her own binder catalyst. She’s able to cast anything from eco-blocks and “glass” tops to pavers and lintels using the same fluff generated from the waste combined with her catalyst.
In her bid to prove you can stop sending waste to landfills, she approached the Wild Coast Sun in 2016 and, in December that year, collected 74 tons of waste generated from the casino in her one-ton bakkie.
After three months her team had sorted the waste, packing the recyclable items into bales to be taken to recycling plants and using the non-recyclable items to turn into fluff for eco-blocks. The casino waste area was immaculate and none of the waste generated over that period made its way to a landfill.
Debbie employs 17 people but her dream is to create more mobile waste converter units, which will lead to more jobs. The units, which cost R3 million each, could be taken to landfill sites to convert 30 tons of waste a week into recyclable waste, and turn non-recyclable waste into blocks, she says.
“Compare R3 million for one unit and all those jobs with the small fortune it costs to keep a landfill site going.
“It really is a no-brainer.”
Debbie Sharp of Port Edward with some of her trash-totreasure blocks.
LEFT: The pool area at Debbie’s lodge is built with her eco blocks. RIGHT: It’s all recycled rubbish – from pillars to wall lintels. FAR RIGHT: Debbie shows off her eco-block – put together with a combination of fluff made from waste and her own patented polymer.
Debbie holds a handful of fluff made from waste that’s been broken down.