Kevin Muller, a 28-year-old self-taught artist from Nairobi, Kenya, is combating climate change by creating toys, serviette holders and art pieces. In this way, he says, he expresses himself while at the same time taking action against pollution.
Muller is using plastic waste collected locally to create over 1.000 different types of reusable and durable products. He is part of a larger wave of young people creating new products out of recycled materials, particularly in urban slums.
Kenya has implemented strong actions against plastics. In 2017, the country placed a countrywide ban on plastic bags, with some of the toughest sanctions for polluters in the world. Manufacturers, sellers, and end-users of plastic bags face four years imprisonment or fines of up to $40.000.
Despite this law, Kenya is still battling waste from single-use plastic. Informal settlement areas such as Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, bear the largest risks and environmental consequences of plastic pollution.
Born and raised in Kibera, Muller recalls that a lot has changed since his childhood and now. Rapid population growth and urbanization in the area have changed the landscape and increased pollution, he said.
Through art, he decided to find a way to tackle this problem. As he says, every type of plastic waste can be used to make a useful product, such as wall art pieces, toys, serviette holders, and a wide range of items from discarded plastic.
Plastic pollution around the world not only creates health impacts for people and biodiversity, but it’s also a climate problem. Currently, between 4 to 8% of annual oil consumption is linked to plastic production, according to the World Economic Forum. That figure could increase up to 20% of oil consumption if reliance on plastics persists as demand grows.
Muller is part of a movement of young people trying to mitigate this problem through art. “I enjoy artwork because it allows me to freely express myself. Art complements my world. I can wake up in the middle of the night and think of something interesting to articulate,” says Muller.
Cleaning up the slums
Since 2017, Muller has been part of the youth-led organization Slums Going Green and Clean (SGGC), which is based at the heart of Kibera. The organization, which initially formed to reform youth from crime, has over 150 members.
The SGGC members utilize various forms of art, such as drawing, singing, poetry, drama, sculpture, and modelling to pass important information on conservation of the environment and plastic waste reduction.
They also collect an average of 1.5 tonnes of waste from 640 households monthly, which is later taken to their sorting site for segregation. Muller gets most of his raw materials for craft art from this site.
“Plastic is causing almost irreversible damage to our society, as a climate and health risk. Rivers in the slum area are mostly choked by plastic materials. Some people burn them, which releases harmful greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Some of these plastics also release harmful chemicals when exposed to the sun,” says Muller.
He often sells his art pieces at exhibitions, and they’re frequently featured in conservation events to sensitize the community on the need to beat plastic pollution. According to Muller, young people are increasingly finding interest in this type of craft.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an adverse impact on Muller’s work as restrictions on gatherings to events have cut off platforms to exhibit his work. The most recent lockdown imposed on Nairobi and nearby counties have also made it impossible for Muller to sell his products to other regions within the country.
Janet Kavutha, a Program Officer at African Sustainability Network (ASNet), believes that talented young people such as Muller should receive government support, the private sector, and conservation organisations to amplify their impact.
“Manufacturers of single-use plastics and local governments should provide incentives to young artists like Kevin to increase efficiency and help them find markets for their products,” says Kavutha.
At a national level, Kenya still faces big challenges to eradicate plastic pollution and its side effects. For example, a 2018 study from the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) found that half of the country’s cattle had plastic in their stomachs.
Before the country’s plastic ban, Kenya produced around 4.000 tons of plastic monthly, with supermarkets alone offering 100 million bags, according to a 2018 study. Only half of that plastic ended up in the solid waste streams.
Now, Muller and the SGGC have ambitious plans for their future. “We have a vision of building a 5-storied art center with locally collected plastic waste,” states Muller. The building, according to him, will be a safe haven where youth from the slum will express themselves and experiment with various materials.
“Many people do not currently appreciate the immense role that art can play in solving much of the society’s pressing challenges, such as climate change. That is why we are building a generation of eco-conscious artists,” Muller concludes.