Home Sustainability How Plastic Waste Can Be Turned into Tiles Harder Than Rock

How Plastic Waste Can Be Turned into Tiles Harder Than Rock

Inc. Arabia speaks to Amr Shalan, co-founder, and CEO of TileGreen, about his company’s ambitious plan to turn plastic waste into building materials stronger than concrete, rocks, and stones.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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This article first appeared in the March/April issue of Inc. Arabia's digital magazine. To read the full magazine, click here

Founded by Amr Shalan and Khaled Raafat in 2021, TileGreen is an Egyptian startup that makes concrete-alternative, carbon-negative building materials from plastic waste. The startup recycles all types of plastic waste into over 40 building products to combat plastic landfilling and the burning of plastic waste in Egypt. Its aim: To recycle 3-5 billion plastic bags by 2025.

Egypt is the MENA region’s biggest marine-plastic polluting country and the seventh largest in the world, producing more than 3 million tons of plastic waste annually.

TileGreen’s flagship product, interlocking road tiles, is used as a substitute for concrete, repurposing 125 plastic bags per tile. The tiles are formed by mixing plastic waste with other materials and then using high-pressure compression to harden them.

Inc. Arabia Speaks to TileGreen’s co-founder and CEO, Amr Shalan, about the challenges of building a climatetech startup in MENA.

Inc. Arabia: How did you come up with the idea of TileGreen?

Amr Shalan: I was working in waste management, and I was responsible for making deals regarding trading plastic waste or waste to be incinerated, and that is when I got the idea. Plastic waste is not a common business, and there are no technologies that currently allow us to use plastic waste in the construction industry.

Since plastic waste was such a huge problem, I wondered if we could create a solution from the problem by turning something harmful into something useful. It was clear that we needed more collection centers and more sorting. But even if we could do all of that, we would still have a problem, because not all plastic is recyclable. And recyclable plastic is hard to sort and prepare.

So we started asking: Can we make a tile or brick from plastic waste? Before starting the company, we spent one year researching and experimenting in my garage outside of Cairo because we didn’t have money back then. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we did almost 100 trials. We knew we had something when we produced one tile from low-grade plastic waste, and that’s when we decided to start the company.

IA: How do you turn waste into tiles?

AS: We see plastic everywhere--plastic buttons, plastic bags, etc.—so it’s hard to imagine this weak material, for example, a plastic bag, forming a material harder than rock. We designed a process to convert plastic waste into a composite material that’s harder than concrete.

The first step was making sure that we had materials that could be used in any application. That meant breaking down the plastic by cleaning, shredding, and washing it. We source our materials directly from landfills, so some of them are contaminated.

The second step is mixing the plastic with additives because, as a composite material, plastic alone does not have the properties needed for building materials, such as being strong and fire-resistant.

The third step is mechanical and thermal treatment to create a final material out of the composite.

IA: Why did you decide to focus on sustainability and recycling and make a business out of it?

AS: It’s organic, and it fits my personality. I was in this industry at the time, and it was much easier to see the opportunity.

It is also related to my personal preference to build something that can benefit the community. This was my opportunity to create a worldwide impact because we are not solving a problem that’s in Egypt or MENA--it is a problem in the whole world.

IA: What are the biggest challenges that you’ve faced or are facing?

AS: We have faced many challenges, and we are still facing them because building a startup is a series of challenges. It’s a game; you unlock a challenge, and you get the next one. It’s just the nature of the startup journey.

For us, one of the challenges is the absence of a sector-specific ecosystem that can support the development of an industrial or manufacturing startup in Egypt and the MENA region. To develop an industry, you need experts, labs, a small prototype, and suppliers to enable you to get your prototype as fast as possible. You also need someone who can help you commercialize the product. The absence of this ecosystem made it harder for us because we had to start from scratch.

For example, if I want a supplier to get a prototype done, I must do everything on my own. That means going to industrial zones and asking people where to get resources because there are no databases. There is no support, and there are no accelerators or incubators that cater specifically to hardware or industrial structures.

As a result, we had to create our own database and support networks locally and globally.

Another challenge was the product itself. Because it is new, people were afraid to try it. And because it is plastic, people were worried that it could be harmful or flammable. As humans, we tend to be skeptical of new things.

IA: Who are your partners?

AS: We work with companies, universities, and research institutions. We are currently in discussions with universities in China, some GCC countries, and one company in the US. We aim to form strong partnerships soon to help accelerate commercial technology development.

IA: What solutions or projects is TileGreen working on to overcome sustainability challenges in the region?

AS: At the end of 2022, we joined a project with a European company (ENALEIA) to clean up the Mediterranean Sea. The initiative involved cleaning the Mediterranean in 4 countries: Egypt on the African side, and Greece, Italy, and Spain on the European side. Because we can recycle low-value plastic waste, it was ideal for us. If you want to clean up the environment, you need to know what to do with plastic waste.

The project incentivizes local fishers to bring their plastic bycatches and discarded fishing gear back to ports, which allows us to collect the equivalent of more than 2 trucks of plastic daily. The plastic is then shipped off to be upcycled instead of ending up back in the sea or landfill.

IA: Which stage are you at now as a startup?

AS: We started 2 years ago. In the first year, we worked out of our pilot facility outside Cairo for testing, manufacturing, prototyping, R&D, etc. In the second year, we started industrial trials in the market to produce building materials and sell them. We delivered 9 projects to 7 customers, including real estate developers, multinational companies, and contractors, and our product has been used for industrial, residential, and commercial areas.

Our challenge at the time was that we couldn’t fulfill all the requests. We received requests for at least 50 to 100 times the production capacity of the pilot. There was interest in our product, but it was just a pilot, and we were validating the market. It was a good problem to have, but we didn’t have the capacity to fulfill those requests.

After the validation period, we moved on to the next phase of commercial technology development. We started mapping out the problems there. The main engineering problem was that there is no technology in the world right now that can convert plastic waste into a composite material that is strong enough in this industry.

IA: Has your business been affected by the current FX shortage and economic turbulence in Egypt?

AS: Luckily, no, most of the material we use is local and we are not a big operation. Those who were affected the most were the ones that use a lot of imported material.

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