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Engineering Students Use Trash To Build Houses In Haiti

The process melts down plastic into a material that serves as a replacement for lumber.

Children Scavenge for Valuables in Garbage Dump in Haiti

Photo: United Nations Photo (Flickr)

Children scavenge for valuables in a garbage dump in Haiti.

Some engineering students from Indiana have found a way to use trash to build stronger houses in Haiti, if they can get funding for the project.

The eight students as Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology researched Haiti as part of the school‘s summer Grand Challenge courses, which has students tackle world problems in the National Academy of Engineering‘s Grand Challenges for Engineering.

Haiti, possibly the poorest country in the west, has thousands of people living in unsafe housing caused by earthquakes, weather disasters and poor governance.

“We found that there is a lot of plastic trash lying all over the place [in Haiti],” said Ryan Tanaka, a junior civil engineering student. “Since they still need to rebuild houses, we could use that plastic trash in an innovative and inexpensive way.”

In a nutshell, the trash – plastic grocery bags and other plastics – is transformed into makeshift lumber.

“We take the plastic trash and melt it with a combination of vegetable oil inside a solar cooker that we‘ve designed. After that, we place it into a mold and make 2 x 4 lumber replacements,” Tanaka said. “The 2 x 4 replacements are comparable to typical 2 x 4 white pine lumber.”

Though Tanaka says they are not as strong in compression or tension, but says they are safe enough to support a 16 x 16 x 16 foot house and stronger than much of the current housing in Haiti.

There would be plenty of material to work with if Tanaka and his school mates were able to export their building program. About 250,000 pounds of plastic trash are exported out of Haiti‘s capital city every month.

Whether it will happen depends on whether the students can get financing.

“We expect to submit our proposal to a couple of organizations,” Tanaka said. “The total cost in U.S. dollars is $470, but we expect those costs would be greatly reduced in Haiti since they have so much plastic trash available.”

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