Upcycling plastic waste to help regrow rainforests in West Africa

Oko is upcycling plastic waste to help regrow rainforests in West Africa

Upcycling plastic waste to help regrow rainforests in West Africa
Christopher Rothera
Apr 29, 2023

Across West Africa, communities often rely on cheap, mass-produced, plastic water sachets for clean and safe drinking water. However, due to poor to no local infrastructure to handle waste, these plastic water sachets have become a significant environmental problem. These plastic sachets, along with almost all other waste produced within the communities, litter the streets, clog waterways, and ultimately harm wildlife. Oko, however, is turning this waste problem into an opportunity to help regrow the country's shrinking indigenous rainforests.

Heaps of plastic water sachets - collected and ready to be upcycled

The process involves upcycling these waste plastic sachets into polybags that can be used to develop and grow seedlings. Oko’s teams,supported by members of the community, are collecting tens of thousands of these waste plastic sachets by scouring the town of Port Loko and picking them off the streets, sides of roads and waste heaps. The bags are then brought to Oko’s nursery, cleaned, filled with soil, and then arranged in the pre-nursery,ready to be planted with an indigenous tree seed at Oko’s nursery. Oko’s nursery is the centre of our operations in Sierra Leone and the seedlings grown in these upcycled polybags will eventually be transplanted out into the field, ready to slowly grow and restore Sierra Leone’s once proud rainforests. Oko is trialling the use of these plastic water sachets as an opportunity to support the development and growth of seedlings throughout its operations, not just in Sierra Leone but wider West Africa also. The intention is to be able to further recycle these plastic sachets, annually, by cleaning and reusing them as polybags.

Oko's team filling the sachets

Over the next several years, Oko is replanting nearly 20 million trees as part of our first project in Port Loko, Sierra Leone; an enormous number that will present the opportunity to keep the streets clean of waste plastic for a very long time. The seedlings that are grown in these upcycled polybags are a wide variety of indigenous and naturalised tree species to Sierra Leone, found and identified through extensive research and in-country forest exploration and study. The rainforests that Oko is regrowing are essential for restoring and preserving the country's biodiversity, as depleted indigenous tree stocks are replenished and provide a habitat for wildlife and help regulate the local climate. By regrowing the country's rainforests, this initiative is directly combating climate change.

Tens of thousands of freshly filled polybags, planted with indigenous tree seeds, being watered

In addition to the environmental benefits, this initiative is also providing economic opportunities for the local communities. The collection and upcycling of plastic sachets provides a source of income for people who previously may not have been employed or had been involved in an informal waste collection program within their community. By identifying ways in which waste can be repurposed and attaching a value to this that can be seized upon by the local communities, entrepreneurship follows, as well as sustainability.We hope that over time more opportunities to upcycle waste will emerge that will add value to communities and help Oko regrow rainforests.

The first seedlings sprouting just one week after planting

Overall, the upcycling of plastic water sachets in Sierra Leone is an excellent example of how waste can be turned into a resource. By transforming these sachets into polybags for growing seedlings, the initiative is helping to regenerate indigenous rainforests and promote sustainable livelihoods. It is a clear example of how communities can come together to address environmental challenges and create a brighter future not just for themselves but for Sierra Leone.

Oko's team