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

Sthe blocks.

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.

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