Using waste plastic to build refugee shelters

Written by: Nick Stillwell | Published:

In 2010 a magnitude seven earthquake hit Haiti, destroying buildings, infrastructure and displacing families.

The pictures relayed back to the UK illustrated the plight of the local people, and also showed large amounts of waste plastic lying around. At the same time Protomax had just finished building a machine that could make boards for construction from mixed-waste plastic.

The first step in disaster relief is to ensure the supply of quick-build shelters, which generally take the form of tents and plastic sheeting. These offer protection from the elements but little insulation or security, and are intended only as an interim measure. The question is: what happens next? The disaster area will need rebuilding, sanitation needs installing, and jobs need creating. In 2016 62,000 people were still displaced, cholera had hit the camps, then in 2018 a magnitude 5.9 earthquake hit Haiti again.

The UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) claims that 68.5 million people around the globe have been forcibly displaced, of whom 25.4 million are refugees. Refugees spend between seven and 17 years in refugee camps.

We thought it was time to think beyond tents and immediate disaster relief. The crisis areas tend to lack finance, raw materials and tools. Generally there is little wood, metal or concrete. Our concept was to build homes and infrastructure using the abundant waste plastic available in the environment. If they ever ran out plenty of other countries would likely be happy to sell their low-value waste plastics.

This would create jobs for pickers collecting plastics, in pre-processing such as shredding and granulating, then board making, and fabricating those boards into anything from shelters and tables to wash stations and toilets. Beyond jobs and shelter the biggest objective was to give those affected by a disaster hope. The problem was that no-one had ever done this successfully, and big industry in Europe were not interested as they already have plywood. We would have to prove the product, the technology and then design and build the shelters. It was going to be a long road.

The first objective was to produce a board that would replace the utilitarian 19mm plywood, to build rooves, walls, floors, pillars, trusses and even foundations. The standard format of plywood is generally referred to in imperial measurement, with depth in millimetres. It needs to stack on a pallet and fit across the eight-foot bed. We decided that one pallet of boards should be one shelter, so 20 shelters on a truck. We created Storm Board as a weatherproof alternative to plywood, made from 100% waste plastics.

Value for money

Having proven all the technical aspects of the boards, the next step was to demonstrate they offer value for money. Though they are at present more expensive to produce than chopping down trees for plywood, companies are starting to realise the savings over the life of the boards. The boards do not need painting, they can be stored outside, they do not rot, they can be laminated directly and they can be re-used multiple times.

Our oldest site hoarding is still standing, erected in 2011 for the National Grid, with Laing O’Rourke, RG Group, Sir Robert McAlpine and Multiplex using it as a site hoarding. Retailers such as Sainsbury’s, Asda, M&S and Harvey Nichols use it as a sustainable alternative to MDF. Music events such as Glastonbury are building kiosks from the boards, and our boards feature at many events as compost toilets. So we ticked the box on public, designer and construction uses. Anywhere it was wet or outdoors Storm Board could compete with plywood.

The third objective was to prove that the technology could be industrialised and made commercially viable, so we built a model factory in the UK as a blueprint for setting up production units around the world. We learned how to recover waste plastic and process it into boards. Upcycling is a much-mocked description of our process, but we find that the term recycling is used to cover anything from collection to export sales to incineration.

I have asked WRAP how much waste plastic is recycled into finished products in the UK and it couldn’t say. There are no statistics for the circular economy. However, we can take a bale of waste plastics worth under £85 per tonne and upcycle them into a product with a value of £2,000 per tonne. The technology was designed to be mobile so that it can be installated in areas without mains utilities supplies.

In 2014 we built a shelter made only from 100% recycled boards, fixed together with nuts and bolts. The boards formed the floor, walls, roof, pillars and trusses. It could be erected in five hours with hand tools. The shelter was designed by ex-marine and architect Anthony Battersby, who had many years’ experience in building infrastructure in developing economies.

Full of enthusiasm we exhibited the shelter at Aidex – a large conference for the aid sector – as the ‘e-home’. Our enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when we were told that we couldn’t sell it as an e-home, because you “can’t give a refugee a home only a shelter”. But broadly the concept and the product were well received.

The next step was to see how unskilled untrained people erected the shelter. For this we used a group of PhD students from the University of Bath. We numbered all the boards and showed them how to build it and amazingly it is still standing several years later. We have been gathering data on this prototype ever since.

Adaptability as key

Plastic has a coefficient of expansion generally higher than wood, which means that when it gets hot the boards will expand and the inside will get hotter. The construction of the shelter needs to take into account the ambient temperatures of the location, and we needed to find inexpensive methods of adapting it to local environments.

To reduce the heat sink we applied self-adhesive reflective foil directly to the boards, which gave up to a 40°C temperature difference between interior and exterior. By lining the interior with another layer of boards, and filling the gap between them with anything from air to sand to EPS (structural fill), the shelters became solid insulated buildings.

It was clear that a level of ‘customisation’ was necessary, as the shelter not only had to suit the environment and the local waste but also the inhabitants. We teamed up with Waste Free Oceans and Corepla to prove that we could take waste from the oceans and rivers of a different country and build a shelter that could be adapted locally. Using the same system they could put the doors and windows where they wanted and even the colour. We fished the material out of the Po river in Italy and processed it into boards and built shelters, which were adapted locally.

Despite achieving most of our goals, we have yet to install a fully operational plant in a refugee camp or disaster area. We have shelter projects in Italy, Greece, Jordan and the Dominican Republic, but setting up a fully-operational plant involves a lot of co-ordination and backing. Large charities are often very focused on solving the immediate needs in disaster areas, and we haven’t yet found the right partner who is more concerned about the medium- to long-term wellbeing of the communities we would like to serve.

Nick Stillwell is general manager at plastic engineering specialists Protomax

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