Refugees turn plastic waste into useful stuff in desert camps

In the middle of the Sahara Desert, where some 90,000 displaced Sahrawi people have lived in refugee camps for four decades, dealing with waste is a problem. Especially plastic waste.

Several times a week, trucks haul waste from the camps to the open desert to burn rubbish. Landfill isn’t an option – it could contaminate the little water there is in the ground. So the wind blows away whatever waste doesn’t burn.

Or at least it used to. Now plastic waste is being recycled and turned into all kinds of useful objects, in a project that not only reduces waste but also lets refugees be part of a circular economy that offers them economic possibilities where these are rare.

The UN Refugee Agency put out a call for solutions to begin recycling throughout the region. Precious Plastic, founded by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens in 2013 and now a global circular community that has workshops everywhere from Chile to Iceland and India to Vietnam, answered the call.

Precious Plastic photo

Precious Plastic aims to teach anyone, anywhere how to recycle plastic. Tahar Kachebi, who works for UNHCR, thought its smart, practical and low-tech ‘recycle plastic anywhere’ method would also work in the refugee camps. With a grant from the Humanitarian Innovation Programme, Precious Plastic and UNHCR teamed up in November 2021 to equip the Sahrawi Refugee Camps with its own recycling workspace.

“Having full ownership over the running of the workshop is important – the refugees have been here for such a long time, and young people are really struggling to find a role,” says Tahar. 

“They were looking for solutions to two problems,” says Joseph Klatt, managing director of Precious Plastic. “One, they have a large refugee population with a high unemployment rate. Everything is brought to the camps, so there isn’t much economic activity going on. And secondly, there’s a lot of garbage in the camp.”

Working with a Precious Plastic team, the refugees set up the recycling workshop in just three weeks. After installing the machines, they learned to identify and sort the different kinds of plastic, shred it and use the sheet press to melt the assorted plastic scraps into sturdy beams or large sheets which can then be used to make just about anything.

They are learning to recycle the plastic into almost anything—from tiles to benches and kitchen utensils. With five shredders, two sheetpress systems, an extrusion machine and a washing system, they can produce useful products for the camps and surrounding communities. 

The machines are designed to be durable, with parts that are easy to make and replace. And because everyone was involved in the assembly, they know how to fix them on-site if anything breaks. 

Precious Plastic on YouTube

Industrial designer Katharina Elleke leads the training sessions via translation from English to Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect. “It’s an extraordinary experience, in an extraordinary context, with extraordinary people. We’re very grateful to be welcoming these wonderful new members to our global family of plastic recyclers,” she says.

The Sahrawi crew already process about 180 kilos of plastic in a single day, says Yann Chauvin, an engineer and the project’s head of operations. “That could even go up to 400-500 kilos a day when they are up and running at full capacity.” 

Orders are streaming in. Local NGOs buy goods from the workshop rather than from Algerian manufacturers outside the camps, supporting the community. One Italian NGO has requested a number of school desks and Oxfam may order plastic shields around the shared water taps throughout the camps, Tahar says. He hopes can be replicated in other refugee camps, where plastic waste is a common problem.


The Sahara desert is full of plastic trash. This refugee camp is recycling it into new products. Fast Company, Apr. 3, 2022

The Sahara refugees running their own recycling workshop. FiveMedia. 

Precious Plastic website.

Plastic recycling in the Sahara Desert. What Design Can Do, Apr. 10, 2022

The Sahara desert is full of plastic waste. This refugee camp is recycling it into new products. Business News, April 3, 2022

Featured image European Commission DG ECHO – The Sahrawi refugees – a forgotten crisis in the Algerian desert, CC BY-SA 2.0,


How turning plastic waste into recycled materials can help refugees. The Current, CBC, Apr. 29, 2022

Zimbabwe Refugee Camp Going Green with Animal Waste. VOA, May 13, 2022

The Sahara refugees running their own recycling workshop. Imagine5