Turning plastic waste into housing
Ken McBryde, HASSELL | 17 March 2016
Ahead of his “material transformation” presentation at the upcoming Green Cities conference, HASSELL principal Ken McBryde describes a novel solution to the waste and housing crises.
Plastic is an amazing material. The first man-made plastic is considered to be “Parkesine”, patented by Alexander Parkes in the UK in 1856.
Since then, Wikipedia tells me that more than 30 different forms of plastic have been developed, including PET, which was patented in 1941 – paving the way for all those plastic bottles – and polyethylene, used in plastic bags, which made their first appearance in the 1950s.
In 2016 it’s hard to imagine a world without plastic. It’s used in an enormous and seemingly ever-expanding range of products – everything from paper clips to spaceships. In 2013 alone we produced more than 270 million tonnes of plastic. To put that in perspective, the great pyramid of Giza is estimated to weigh 6.5 million tonnes. Or to put it another way, in 2012, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine estimated that the world’s adult population weighed in at 287 million tonnes.
But here are some really disturbing facts:
- Every piece of plastic waste we have produced remains in the environment (apart from that which we have burnt)
- In 2010 it was estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in the oceans
- In this sea of plastic, one billion people lack adequate housing
What should we be doing about these truly disturbing challenges?
Four years ago I met Nev Hyman, founder of Firewire Surfboards. Reflecting these challenges, Nev Hyman had a simple idea: turn that waste into housing. And, while we’re at it, we’ll create local micro-industries and jobs by providing containerised recycling plants.
So we make housing, create jobs and clean up the oceans! That’s triple bottom line sustainability: social + economic + environmental. A win-win-win!
Most surfers, Nev and me included, have enjoyed many memorable trips to Bali and Indonesia surfing. When exploring the country for hidden surf breaks you can’t help but notice two things: the deplorable living conditions in the villages and the shocking levels of plastic waste in the rivers, ocean and on the beaches.
Most surfers would agree that it’s time we found a way to give back, and for Nev and me, turning plastic waste into housing in Bali and Indonesia seemed like a good start.
Getting down to business, we assembled a multi-disciplinary team consisting of polymer experts, specialist engineers from Arup plus industry and manufacturing experts. Exclusive rights were secured to a patented recycling process that used five of the seven plastic codes – it was wonderful.
We agreed we needed to develop a contemporary and robust design, most importantly one that would feel at home in the villages of Indonesia and Bali. We needed a design that government housing department officials and international relief funding agencies would find desirable.
During a long and intense workshop on the Gold Coast, things were getting bogged down and stale, so I sneakily checked the surf reports. Nearly everyone in the team surfs, so it wasn’t hard to get agreement that we needed a well-earned break and should head down to Snapper Rocks for a midday surf.
Walking back up the beach, totally re-energised by our surf session, ideas flowed – we cracked it.
By the end of the day we had developed a single extrusion that would work for the walls, louvers, roof and floors. A few additional angle profiles could also be combined in a range of ways to provide a portalised structural frame. Limiting the number of extrusions significantly reduces the upfront tooling costs of die manufacture. The basic, almost conventional building components we had designed could be readily prefabricated, flat-packed, shipped and assembled by locals with limited trade skills, using traditional and familiar hand tools.
With large overhangs, an elevated and naturally ventilated floor, extensive full-height louvre openings, and the carefully designed hierarchy of architectural elements, we were convinced we had a highly appropriate design solution to government-supplied housing for Bali and Indonesia.
Within a few weeks we were getting very positive responses from government housing representatives in Bali and Indonesia. In fact the demand was extraordinary. We were really onto something!
But, little by little, after testing many different polymer combinations and compounds, we learnt more about the idiosyncrasies of recycling plastic.
Have you ever tried to empty all the motor oil out of those plastic containers? Have you noticed that some oil will always remain, no matter how long you drain it?
After two years of research & development we had to accept that contaminated or dirty plastics could not achieve the kind of structural characteristics need to make houses. To get anywhere near the structural characteristics required, we could only use two of the seven codes of plastic – and the plastic had to be perfectly clean. So, this meant only factory production rejects were suitable, not actual rubbish or consumer waste! Furthermore, there is nowhere near enough factory reject plastics to meet the housing demands we had in mind.
No matter which polymers we combined or additives we explored, for the long-term structural stiffness we needed to make housing, we had to accept that recycled plastic waste really was… just rubbish!
So we had a major road block.
We had to face up to the fact we could not make houses from recycled plastic waste.
Then in March 2015, category five Tropical Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu. 75,000 people lost their homes, natural resources and income. The sago palms and bamboo the villagers would traditionally have used to rebuild their homes were flattened and would take up to five years to regrow.
The devastation in Vanuatu forced us back to the drawing board. We knew recycled plastics couldn’t do it, but we wanted to find another recycled material that would not only work for housing, but for housing that could withstand cyclonic winds of up to 250 kilometres an hour.
We realised the answer had been staring us in the face. For my entire career I have been doing R&D work. Twenty-five years ago my masters by research (University of Queensland) developed a prefabricated Laminated Veneer Lumber portal frame system for housing in cyclonic tropical regions.
Sustainable yield timber is the ultimate recycled material – trees recycles carbon from the atmosphere to grow!
The team’s idea to introduce engineered timber ultimately led to what we call Nev House V2.0. For the moment we are adopting rather basic portal frames from sustainable yield LVL and wood plastic composite (WPC) cladding and flooring. We are currently working on refining the LVL portal structure with Bruce Hutchings of Timberbuilt. This involves employing highly sophisticated computerised milling equipment to simplify assembly and reduce the need for trade skills on-site. These design refinements are reducing the amount of material needed and taking away the reliance on plate steel in the portal joints.
We have solved the immediate design challenge to supply housing for the tropics built from recycled materials that will withstand category five cyclones. The team has not given up on the original vision of turning plastic waste into affordable housing, however.
Currently we are exploring new recycling technology that not only uses dirty old plastic waste, but also includes tin cans and string… just about anything! The end product is way lighter, and has far superior structural qualities to WPC.
Even though we are yet to deliver on the original vision, the journey so far has been truly inspiring. We are living in amazing times. Technology, and our access to it, is growing exponentially. A paradigm shift is underway in the world of commerce, with new motivations for doing business emerging. For example, the talent we hope to employ at HASSELL, as well as many of our clients and investors, want to engage with companies that are culturally aligned to our changing times.
I think it gets down to a simple concept for living on this planet. It’s about giving not taking, a concept that applies equally to our professional careers.
I am not certain when the Nev House will be delivering on the original vision of cleaning up plastics from the environment to create housing and jobs, but there’s obvious truth in what Nev Hyman says: “It’s about doing well by doing good.”
Ken McBryde is a principal at HASSELL. He will speak on material transformation at the Green Cities 2016 conference in one of the 7 x 7 sessions in which seven speakers talk for seven minutes about disruptive ideas.