From waste to plastic bricks, these sisters are doing it for jobs and the environment

Two sisters, originally from Sasolburg, have started a company that is manufacturing eco-bricks made from recycled plastic. They are Kekeletso and Kedibone Tsiloane. Their company, Ramtsilo Bricks, is a 100% black female-owned business that has just managed to clinch a deal with building material retailer Builders Warehouse. Kedibone told BizNews about their path to develop the product and how they overcame some of the stereotypes associated with the building industry. – Linda van Tilburg

Kedibone Tsiloane on how her and her sister, Kekeletso got involved in the construction industry:

We actually got in through our father and it really was not a world that we were aware of – or that we understood. Growing up, my father had a construction business that he started [around] 1999. We were quite young [and] we’d go with him on site – and this was every school holiday. My sister and I got to understand the construction side. We’d see buildings start from scratch and we’d see how the business runs on the back end as well. With that interest that he saw in us, he registered a business for [my sister and me] in 2013.

On the inspiration behind the plastic bricks:

We were doing a lot of construction work and we picked up that we’re spending quite a lot of money on bricks. We then started manufacturing cement bricks, [as] we wanted to save money. So, we started manually manufacturing these bricks which [were] consumed by our projects. However, we wanted something that was different, innovative and that set us apart. We started researching what we can do and came across an elderly waste picker who – interestingly enough, we still collect from to this today – explained to us how plastic recycling creates an income for her [and] allows us to take care of her grandkids and afford medication. My sister is also quite strict about litter – even growing up, she was one of those people who would tidy up after others. We realised that we want to do something in the plastic recycling space – but also stick to what we know, which is construction. We then looked at how we can use plastic in the manufacturing of our bricks. This went on for about a year until we built something we were comfortable with and decided to take for product testing.

On the amount of plastics found in the bricks:

We manufacture different sizes and we do so in accordance with the standards from the South African Bureau of Standards. We’ve got the maxi, stock and the pavers. For the pavers, we’ve got about 20% plastic – and this is because of the required strength of the product, according to the standards. Then with the maxi and stock bricks, it’s about 30% plastic.

On job creation:

We work with [around] 50 waste pickers and it’s in the Free State and Gauteng – so we have a provincial footprint in two provinces. With that, we’ve been able to create direct employment for the people who work at our factory, but one of the most touching things is being able to support small businesses that are in the recycling space – but also the waste pickers. The informal waste pickers, this sort of formalises their job, because they do one of the most undignified jobs out there. But they’re actually the initiators of an economy. They’re the people who ensure that we recycle by collecting that waste. We are very proud to be working with them and creating a livelihood for them through the manufacturing of our bricks.

On the process plastic bricks go through:

What we wanted to do was create a product that was as practical as possible – easy for a contractor to use of any lessons learned or any additional cost. We then went into processing the products in such a way that when you have a look at the product, you would not be able to tell whether it’s the conventional cement brick or our plastic brick. In the development of our IP, we ensured that we process the plastic in such a way that even if the brick was to be broken in half or a building was demolished, there would not be any traces of plastic – to ensure that there’s no leakage of plastic into the environment from the plastic we process.

On how it compares to a cement brick:

It’s got the same look and feel – that’s purely for the market to receive it and also from a structural perspective. We wanted to make sure that when you are building – renovating your house or doing small renovations – you don’t want to have the additional cost of adhesive [for example]. It’s got the same look and feel. In terms of quality, it’s very much superior – it’s stronger. Because of the plastic element, it’s not as porous as a conventional brick. You will not see those cracks on your wall for a long period of time. It requires less building maintenance – and plastic is known for insulation properties. Buildings are also energy efficient, so you also save on your energy bill and also take care of the environment by just constructing your house with the plastic bricks.

On getting the product into Builders Warehouse:

That’s probably the highlight of our lives at the moment. It took [many] years to get to this point. When Builders Warehouse heard of us, it was while we’re still very much in the startup phase – our capacity at the time was so low. When we sat with them they said, “that’s fine, we’ll grow with you. But we need to get to a point where your product is at a certain level to be in the store.” We had to go through product testing – which is also helpful for us because we then got to learn some of the testing requirements that are out there. That also adds value to the product. Having it on the Builders Warehouse shelves – granted, it’s still growing because our capacity is still growing, so it’s still a few stores – but we are growing with the brand to make sure that our footprint is spread out as much as possible.

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