Tag Archives: recycling

Recycling when there is no recycling program. Part 3: steel cans

In coming up for uses for discarded materials in Rundu, Namibia where I serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was stuck with what to do with the numerous steel food cans we had acquired. A few ideas are below.

Idea #1: Flowerpots

Early on I made a few of the larger cans into flowerpots using shitenge material for decoration (colorful fabric that is available at the local market). I just cleaned the can, removed the label, poked a few holes in the bottom with a screwdriver and then cut and attached the fabric. Some of the glue remained when I removed the labels and this worked pretty well to stick the fabric on, but I also tied some string around each pot.


Thanks to my counterpart for the plants which grow very well from cuttings and have been one of the few decorative plants that seem to thrive here.

Idea #2: Rocket stoves

I started to do more research and found out about “rocket stoves.” These stoves use a chimney effect to produce very high heat and don’t use much fuel, only requiring twigs or small pieces of scrap wood. I built a prototype just using a pocketknife and scissors, but due to the amount of metal cutting needed, tin snips would be much more helpful. Besides the need for a good tool to cut the cans, all other materials can be found very easily. You just need one large food can (or paint can) and four regular size cans. Sand, which is very plentiful in Namibia, can be used as the insulation material inside the large can.

A great set of step-by-step instructions can be found on instructables.com.

Instructables rocket stove

Image of Instructables.com rocket stove by darrinmcl (My first protoype is not photo-worthy).

Idea #3: Tea light holder (and maybe food warmers)

A much more simple product. Just use tin snips, scissors or a knife to cut a can about two-thirds of the way down and then punch holes around the can in a pattern. A paper hole punch actually works well for this and you will build up forearm strength! A wire could be attached and these could be hung outdoors as small candle lanterns to create a nice ambiance. This could also be used to keep food warm if a pot is placed on the tea light holder. And I once paid for a chafing dish set!

tea light holder

Tin snips would have produced a cleaner cut than the knife I used but you get the idea.

A much more aesthetically-pleasing larger candle holder can be made with a steel food can, basic welding skills and a small welding torch.

recycled materials candle holder

Recycled materials candle holder courtesy of our friend and fellow PCV, JT, who found this in her house. This product will be a great demonstration to the COSDEC business club and to our welding trainees.

Idea #4: Tuna can stove

This stove is a very similar concept to the aluminum can stoves I made in a previous post, but this is even easier! All you need is an empty tuna can and a hole punch. Punch a series of holes in two rows around the can, fill with denatured alcohol (here it is sold as methyl alcohol) and light. The cooking pot can be placed right on the top of the stove. (Demonstrated here but in my test run this did not work very well.) Similar to the aluminum can stoves, a windscreen should be used to make sure the heat is being efficiently directed to the pot. It does not seem to burn as cleanly and efficiently as the smaller aluminum can stove, but it does work.

Tuna can stove

Tuna can stove. This could also be used as a tea light holder.


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Recycling when there is no recycling program. Part 2: aluminum cans

alcohol stove in action

Our power was out earlier today, so the alcohol stove came in very useful even in our relatively modern flat. The empty steel food cans are being used just as a tripod for the pot of water. As a disclaimer, the stoves should not be used in an enclosed space indoors, but we had windows open and used the alcohol can right on our stove top.

Due to the long distances between towns and the low overall population density, it is not cost-efficient to implement recycling programs in the far reaches of Namibia. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rundu, Kavango East Region, it was difficult to see all of the aluminum cans and other recyclables scattered in trash piles all over town, when there is such economic potential. In my first post on recycling, I highlighted some uses for glass bottles.

As a hiker and backpacker (trekker), I was familiar with alcohol stoves made from aluminum cans, but never tried one until our friend Ryan made one for us as a gift. His stove is featured in the photo above and, as Ryan is an engineer, it is pretty advanced for this genre of stoves. I was looking for a technique to make these can stoves not requiring as many materials or tools and found this great tutorial on YouTube.

alcohol can stove

Test run of the easy-to-make alcohol stove.

The other nice thing about the stoves in the YouTube video is that the pot can go directly on the stove itself so you don’t need a separate pot stand, but elevating it a bit would probably be more efficient. A windscreen is also definitely recommended for these types of stoves. I’m going to research making a windscreen out of aluminum cans cut into strips as shown below. I’m hoping to run a short course sometime next month at COSDEC to demonstrate how to make these stoves.

aluminum can rectangle

Aluminum can cut into a rectangle for potential use.

These can stoves are also great because the fuel is just denatured alcohol or methanol (sold sometimes as HEET), which is available all over the world in hardware stores, grocery stores or pharmacies. The fuel burns cleanly, especially if your stove is well-made and produces nice blue flames.


Here in Namibia, alcohol that can be used in these can stoves is sold as “methylated spirits.”

This Instructables link has an interesting idea to use aluminium can rectangles as roofing shingles. I’m not going to attempt aluminum smelting in my remaining time in Namibia, but I think it would really have potential especially since the molten aluminum can be cast in sand (of which there is plenty here). Here is an example of how to make an aluminum foundry. Here is another good post on how to cast a bowl out of molten aluminum.


Filed under COSDEC, Peace Corps Namibia Blog

Recycling when there is no recycling program. Part 1: bottle cutting

I drafted this post last week, but it makes for a nice Peace Corps Earth Day tie in!

As someone who grew up during the evolution of recycling in the U.S., I am conditioned to try to recycle as much as possible. Where we lived in Denver for instance, they made it ridiculously easy with single-stream recycling in a large wheeled container that was picked up every two weeks. Between that and using our compost pile for fruit and vegetable scraps, we usually had very little actual trash.

trash pit

A typical trash pile on our school campus. Seeing the waste of this marula fruit last year prompted me to take action. Aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastics are also either buried or burned in trash fires (these materials don’t burn well!)

As a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer arriving in Rundu, Namibia in September 2013, I had a fast wake up call that developing countries are unable to recycle the vast majority of their trash. The sad thing is that this is a missed opportunity for employment creation and for income-generating opportunities for unskilled workers. There are fluctuations in the market for plastics, glass and paper, but municipal recycling programs are usually sustainable through aluminum can recycling. In the U.S. you can find many otherwise unemployed people collecting cans to sell. One guy even funded a movie just through collecting cans and selling them (but I can’t find a link to that! I gave up after an hour, sorry). Because of the ease of recycling cans, more of my favorite Colorado breweries started producing beer in cans as well. Recycling, especially aluminum, can be profitable.

In the locations (townships) around Rundu, trash pick up is nonexistent, so people dump their trash in open fields and eventually the town comes in with a bulldozer and loads it in a truck destined for the landfill. Early on in my service, I emailed a couple of companies that do recycling in Windhoek and the other larger cities in Namibia to see when a program might be coming to Rundu, but never received a reply (the usual situation when you email someone in Namibia).

I started saving cans and bottles here in our flat, much like a hoarder, because I found it also so wasteful. These materials quickly fill up a trash pit because they don’t burn. When we visited the U.S. last May, I brought back to Namibia a Kinkajou Bottle Cutter.  Basically, the Kinkajou blade makes a score line around the bottle and then cycles of hot and cold water are used to cleanly fracture the glass, so the bottle can then be sanded smooth and used as a glass or a vase, etc.

Nothing is ever as easy as advertised though. In my initial attempts to make small drinking glasses out of empty beer bottles, I was going through at least 10 cycles of hot and cold (even with an ice water bath for the bottles) before I was able to get them to break. This is a lot more time and effort than advertised. I was able to cut a few of these small bottles, but I moved onto other projects a bit disappointed because I was hoping to leave this bottle cutter behind for a Namibian to use to make these products as a business.

bottle cutting success

Thanks to the work of the Kinkajou Bottle Cutter, our South African wine bottle collection is ready to be put to new uses such as a replacement French press container – the large Four Cousins bottle. They call it a coffee plunger here.

Last month I shifted to attempting to cut wine bottles and had much better success! Maybe the larger surface area allows for better fracturing, but with only two or three cycles of hot and cold water, the wine bottles snapped fairly cleanly. I do recommend the product, just not for Namibian beer bottles. I am going to give the cut wine bottles away as gifts to my colleagues at work and feature this item in my business club as a possible income-generating activity. The bottle labels can be removed using warm water and soap. Soaking them for an hour seems to work pretty well for most of the labels.

marula cider glass

An example of a smaller glass made from a juice bottle.

Bottles can also be ‘cut’ using string and nail polish remover although I batted one for three on my attempts using that technique. You don’t need the fancy Kinajou cutter, but it does make it easier. The “cut” wine bottles can be used to display flowers, as storage containers and as pencil and pens cups.

A future post will cover “recycling” of aluminum and steel cans.


Filed under Peace Corps Namibia Blog