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A roof, a sorting table, and a compressor made out of salvaged metal and old car wheels: The PressPoint is the key to a concept that will kick start PET plastic bottle recycling in Ghana, Africa.

  • Form prototype. The bags are suitable for use by pickers, but can also be stacked for transport.

  • PET Recycling in Ghana: Problem and path towards a solution.

    PET Recycling in Ghana: Problem and path towards a solution.

  • Pickers collecting recyclable materials in Kumasi's largest landfill. Here, PET is not collected.

  • An engineer shows us existing and locally used compressing devices in his workshop in Kumasi, Ghana.

  • Sketches of roller press mechanisms. Used car wheels are widely available in Ghana.

  • Second Function prototype: The four-car-wheel system reduces the input bottle volume by 50 percent.

What it does

PET plastic is currently not recycled in Ghana because transportation of PET bottles is too expensive. In PressPoints, bottles are collected and compressed at a small scale before transport to a PET buyer, enabling a viable recycling chain.

Your inspiration

30'000 tons of PET bottles are discarded in Ghana each year. It is appalling to hear that there is no infrastructure in place to recycle it. An interdisciplinary collaboration between ETH Zurich and the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) gave us the opportunity to visit Jeffrey Provencal in Accra, Ghana. His startup, rePATRN, recycles PET, but has been struggling for four years to be a sustainable business. Jeff's unwavering drive and confidence in the cause inspired us to dig deep, exploring existing recycling mechanisms in Ghana, talking to local engineers, waste pickers in dumps, and members of existing recycling organizations.

How it works

The recycling chain as we found it in Ghana starts after discarded objects have landed in a dump, on the streets, or in nature: So-called "pickers" collect recyclable materials in these locations and sell them to a nearby middleman, who organizes and pays for transport to a recycling facility. In the case of PET bottles, this chain never comes to be: Bottles take up so much space that a 50 km truck ride costs as much as the middleman would receive for the PET plastic he delivers! The collected bottles must be compressed before transport to a PET buyer, but flattening each bottle by hand takes much too long. Our solution: In middleman-run "PressPoints" spread across the city, bottles are bought off local pickers. The PressPoint is equipped with a sorting table where the bottles are color-sorted before being efficiently compressed with a locally built roller press. This enables economical transport and thus provides the missing link to the PET recycling chain.

Design process

Our on-site investigation in Ghana helped us gain an understanding of existing processes and have a better chance at designing a product that will fit into a culture that is different from ours. Based on numerous interviews with the different actors within the local waste management ecosystem, we found that PET could only be an attractive business if manning a PET collection point in the city and driving it to a large buyer was more profitable. This required a solid business plan that was not too alien to local entrepreneurs, as well as a low-cost, locally built device to reduce the volume of bottles. We discarded ideas of shredding the plastic, as blunt blades can generate heat - PET that has been heated cannot be recycled. After testing different methods, we started closing in on a roller press solution. We found that capped bottles did not need to be pierced, as more profit can be made by manually removing caps and selling them separately (PP or HDPE plastic). Old car wheels are readily available in Ghana, and in testing they proved to be effective rollers to crush bottles: grippy and flexible enough to allow hard objects to pass without damaging the mechanism. We built numerous small models and two real-size prototypes with old car wheels from a car repair shop in Zurich.

How it is different

Having seen examples of failed introductions of new equipment in Ghana by foreign organizations, we payed special attention to understanding the user and developed a concept and product not aimed at being disruptive, but rather rooted into the existing procedures and culture. In addition to this, targeting middlemen, a known number of traders distributed throughout the city, means that only a small portion of participants in the existing recycling chain will have to change their ways. The press is designed to be very intuitive, is made using locally employed techniques such as welding, and has simple belt-and-pulley gearing that allows it to be actuated manually, with a profitable throughput at a low exertion. Anyone can copy this concept, build the press and start their own PressPoint. We painted our prototype press in bright colors, emulating a widespread branding technique that we saw in workshops and markets.

Future plans

We are aware that our on-site investigation does not make us experts on the needs of the users of our product - not only future PressPoint owners and their employees, but also the craftsmen commissioned to build a PET bottle press. We quickly initiated production of the press in workshops in Ghana to get early feedback. As of today, rePATRN has hired various local mechanics to build our press. Two prototypes have been completed and have given us insights for further improvement. Car wheels remain the go-to rollers. In parallel, preparations are being made to put the first PressPoints into operation, beginning near Accra's landfills.


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