Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Paper Briquette Project

Now that I’m fully engrossed in project work it seems that I have many balls in the air at all times.  I’ve always worked well under pressure or backed up to a deadline so, although I’m busy, this feels good to me and provides structure and purpose each day. It also helps keep my mind present here and not as worried about the things going on back home that are out of my control.

[Editor's Note:  Once I'd written this entire blog entry and was about to post it, I realized that I'd written about this project in my last posting.  Instead of just deleting it, I decided to post anyway, since I went into much more details here.  See?  I do have many balls in the air and can't even remember which ones I've written about already.  Hopefully, you'll learn something new, regardless.]

One of the projects I’m working on is a paper briquette press.  In December, I attended an All-Volunteer Meeting where a group of 2nd and 3rd year volunteers demonstrated some of the appropriate technology projects they’ve worked on at their sites.  A few of these caught my eye and I’m implementing them in Diourbel with Ibou and our eco-village members at Baol Environnement.  The first one we tackled was the paper briquette press.  This project was brought to Senegal by my friend Stephanie, who researched how to turn recyclable paper into burnable briquettes.  She found a press on-line, ordered it, and had it replicated here by a metal smith. By definition, appropriate technologies are "small scale, labor intensive, energy efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled."  The local user should have access to all of the materials needed and be able to replicate any working parts locally. This press fits the bill; however, because it requires the use of recyclable paper to actually make the briquettes, the project was not sustainable in the rural village setting where Stephanie lived.  The amount of paper used by her villagers was minimal.  The city of Diourbel, where I live, is the capital of the region of Diourbel and therefore has many schools, businesses, and government offices that use paper. Because it’s more of an urban setting, most people also use some sort of paper in their homes.

In order to truly appreciate this project and its multifaceted benefits, you have to understand the trash situation in Senegal.   Outside of Dakar and one coastal town along the Petit-Côte where Peace Corps Volunteers have been actively addressing this problem for years, there are few established trash collection systems throughout the country.  In Diourbel, you can hire a man with a donkey cart to come along and collect your trash and he’ll take it to a community trash pile in the middle of town--away from your compound and out of your sight, but still in the middle of a populated area next to someone else’s neighborhood.  Most people can’t afford this or can’t be bothered and create trash piles just outside their compounds which are shared with their neighbors.  If they’re throwing away anything putrid, like fish guts or animal parts, they’ll usually dig a shallow hole and cover it with sand, but the feral cats are on to them and quickly dig them up.  When the pile gets large enough, someone will set it on fire and we’ll all breath burning plastic fumes throughout the night.  It’s not pleasant. These trash piles are more than just an eye sore, they’re a health hazard, too, covered in flies and accessible to small children.  Removing paper products from them barely scratches the surface, but it does help get people thinking about trash sorting and trash reduction.

Since we established a paper recycling bin in my compound, my trash-creating guilt has been diminished because when I buy “toubaby things” like toilet paper that has a cardboard roll in the middle, packaged foods, and tissue boxes, or when I receive letters and packages in the mail, I’m able to toss their paper-based wrappings in it. Between that and the compost pile we’ve made in my compound since my arrival, my “plastic” trash is fairly limited.
After paper has been collected, it’s torn into small pieces and soaked in a basin of water overnight.  The next day, the paper is worked by hand into a thick pulpy mixture.  Peanut shells (of which there are an abundance here in the peanut basin) are then added and this mixture is put into the press.  One basin of pulp/peanut shells will yield about 8-10 briquettes.

The press itself is small (10”L x 3.5”W x 8.5”H) and consists of three parts, the base, the insert, and the press plate.  The base and the insert fit together to hold the pulp and then the press plate is placed on top.  Two arms attached at the top of the base are interlaced, crossing each other to rest on top of the bars on the press plate.  Pressure is applied to the arms, pressing the water from the paper pulp and creating a solid briquette.  The press comes apart to release the newly formed briquette for drying.  Even though the climate is hot and arid, the briquettes take a minimum of 15 days to completely dry on our rooftop.

The briquettes are used to replace wood, charcoal, or gas for cook stoves.  Each day, families cook a large lunch for everyone in their compound and this is traditionally done in a large pot over an open fire.  Charcoal and gas are an expensive option, so the majority of people use wood.  Using wood entails either buying it or sending women and girls out to gather it.  The first option eats into the household expenses and the second option often means that girls are taken out of school to take on this chore.  Using wood, also adds to the problem of deforestation, which is an odd term to use because where I live there are no forests, just random trees that provide bits of shade and tremble in fear of machetes.  Although briquettes require a small amount of wood to get the fire going, an entire lunch can be prepared using mainly paper briquettes resulting in a great reduction in per meal costs. 

A project like this is only useful if you have the means of passing the technology along to those who need it.  We’ve taken a two-pronged approach to this.  The first was to introduce the press to a group of 50 fourth grade students who attended an Eco-Ecôle program with us over Spring Break.  We spent several days explaining the press, how it works, why it’s needed, the impact on the trash situation, and household savings to them.  The kids loved it.  They got to rip up paper, play with wet paper pulp, make something they can use, and practice explaining how it’s done.  Because we worked with ten students from five different schools, we challenged them to go back to their classrooms, establish a paper recycling station, and explain to their classmates what they had done.  Yesterday, we got a call from one of the school directors who said that the students from his school who’d attended our Eco-Ecôle program conducted a demonstration for the class and placed rice sacks in the room to collect paper.  This was the school that had sent us the most number of girls, so it’s not surprising that they led this effort, since the girls are the ones who benefit from this the most.  This means we have kids teaching kids the importance of trash sorting and recycling, kids teaching kids the how to reduce the cost of providing meals to their families, and kids teaching kids about new technologies that are within their reach.  How cool is that?

The second sector of people that we’ll work with is women’s groups, which are a fundamental part of the socio-economic structure in Africa.  Our association, Baol Environnement, works with 48 women’s groups in the Diourbel region and provides them with training, organizational assistance, and new technologies.  These women can create micro-enterprises using the paper briquette press as a means of creating income for their groups by making and selling briquettes and/or presses to their communities.

So, that’s just one of the many projects with which I’m currently involved.  The others are equally interesting and I’ll be writing about these soon.

Please note that I've added some photo albums to the left side-bar.  These may be repeats for those of you who also follow me on Facebook.  I'll add both new albums and photos to these existing albums from time to time, so take a peek when you have time.

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