Using Recycled Plastic To Build Homeless Shelters – A Few Critiques

A few days ago, I came across a local Kickstarter with an interesting twist. Taking on 2 very prevalent problems of modern-day society (houselessness and plastic pollution), a Winnipeg man had the idea of recycling plastic into blocks to build shelters for keeping the desolate out of the elements. I’ll now refer to the CTV Winnipeg article for more details.

WINNIPEG – One Winnipeg man is hoping to help put an end to homelessness in the city – brick by brick.

Josh Griffin, 30, has started a fundraiser with the goal of creating temporary homeless shelters made out of recycled plastic that has been converted into bricks.

Griffin said the idea first came to him when he was living in Indonesia and noticed there was a lot of plastic waste washing up on the shores. Then, when he returned to Winnipeg, he began to notice there was a lot of people experiencing homelessness in the city.

He said his mom always taught him to help those in need, but he didn’t know what he could do. Eventually, an idea came to him.

“I remembered seeing a little video put out by Precious Plastics in the UK, showing how they were making bricks from discarded plastic waste. That was it,” he said in an email to CTV News.

“I was going to do that and build shelters for those that needed them.”

From there, Griffin began doing his own research to see what types of natural additives could be combined with plastic to make it safe and ensure it could withstand the frigid Winnipeg winters. He also found someone who could build him the customizable equipment he would need to start producing the products.

However, his challenge has been coming up with the funds, which is why he started a GoFundMe and Kickstarter.

https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/winnipeg-man-raising-funds-to-build-temporary-homeless-shelters-out-of-recycled-plastic-1.5618679

 

So far, there is nothing disagreeable about the project or its creator. Having looked up the Precious Plastics website, their shared goal of helping people anywhere start plastic recycling-related business ventures is enviable. And as for the end result product, I would have no issue with buying them and having them in my home.

Check out the chair pictured on the website or the tabletop showcased in the following video. Not only are they beautiful pieces, but they also utilize a material that is commonly rejected by North American recycling facilities from coast, to coast, to coast.

Black plastic. 

Being invisible to the cameras and sensors that now dominate many recycling facilities (since they blend in with the belt, which is also black), many communities ask that black items be trashed even if made of commonly recycled resins like #1, #2 and #5. Something worth considering when taking a walk down the personal care aisle at any store. Shampoos and body washes are notorious for this kind of bottle colour marketing (particularly brands and formulas targeted at males).

 

 

“I want to produce various high quality building materials,” Griffin said.

“I want to give home builders here in Canada an alternative to costly lumber. I want to be actively trying to reduce plastic waste by repurposing, which helps the planet! I want to be in a position where I can either organize a build or provide the materials for free to local groups that will have the biggest impact on the unsheltered.”

Griffin said he needs $60,000 for various costs, including securing a workspace, building equipment and molds, monthly utilities, and creating prototypes with different additive testing.

“I really want this to be a local (Winnipeg) new technique that we could introduce to the rest of Canada,” he said.

“However, at this point I have to consider all interests that may be presented, so that I can actually begin hands on.”

Griffin noted he’s been working on the project for two years, and is still not in the position to take it to the next level.

He said this process has been frustrating at times.

“I didn’t think that almost 2 years later I still wouldn’t have been able to get this accomplished,” he said.

“Going to keep motivated though. I have to.”

 

In terms of crowdfunding, he’s done a lot better on GoFundMe than on Kickstarter, earning $3,415 as of publication vs $101 on Kickstarter (though neither is even close to the Kickstarter goal of $62,000 or the GoFundMe goal of $18,000). Since the article is very sparse with the details of his proposed overall process, we will now turn to Josh’s Kickstarter page.

 

Long-lasting design

Plastic building materials last a lot longer then concrete wood or metal. And can always be recycled again in the end into new materials.

 

While it is in fact true that plastic lasts much longer than almost any other building material we know of currently, I question the recyclability claim at the end of life of the product. While it is true that high-density polyethylene (aka resin #2) is extremely recyclable, the term recyclable can be very problematic with plastics.

Unlike aluminum, steel, cardboard, glass and paper, plastic is far more of an umbrella term than a descriptor.

An aluminum can is an aluminum can, whether it had soda, carbonated water, beer or an energy drink in it. Same for a steel can (whether it had soup or cat food in it). Paper is a bit more complex, but generally speaking, most consumer scrap fits into 3 categories:

1.) Newsprint

2.) High-Grade Deinked Paper (letterhead/copy paper. envelopes)

3.) Mixed grade (everything else)

Glass has to be sorted by colour when properly recycled, but again, a glass bottle is a glass bottle. When it comes to plastic, however, the understanding is not nearly always as interchangeable. For example, let’s consider 2 items that I happened to have sitting in my own blue bin.

One initially held instant coffee and the other a delicious pumpkin spice coffee creamer I’ve never had before. Both are made of technically the same plastic resin #1 (PETE, or Polyethelene terephthalate). One is shaped very similarly to a typical 355ml/500ml/2L plastic bottle used for water/soda/juice (also made of PETE) and will likely be sorted as such.

The instant coffee package on the other hand has some very different properties to the bottle next to it leaving me to wonder if it really will be recycled in the end. The first is that it is much thicker than the bottle next to it. And the second is that it is very rigid (particularly the neck area) which may make it difficult to compact.

The reason this comes to mind is because of yet another type of PETE plastic which my city explicitly tells residents to trash due to the lack of a market for the material. That packaging is either square or rectangular trays that often hold berries or baked goods. This sort of thing:

 

 

Knowing that all of this is pertaining to materials made of the same resin, it’s no wonder that consumers are confused about what goes where. And even if we can get past the issues related to many resins of plastic, many colours of plastic and packaging that ships with more than 1 resin as part of the original packaging, you still run into the problem that is downcycling.

That is to say, viewing plastics recycling as a closed-loop (bottles to bottles, bottles to jars etc) is often wrong. Unlike a product like glass or most metals, plastic tends to degrade with each consecutive meltdown.

Less than 30% of plastic bottles are recycled in the U.S., but technically speaking, most are “downcycled.” Also known as cascaded recycling or open-loop recycling, downcycling occurs when a material is remade into an item of lower quality. These items typically can’t be recycled again, which cuts an item’s overall life cycle short. 

While recycling closes the loop and keeps an item in circulation – just like the chasing arrows on the recycling symbol would suggest – downcycling turns that loop into a one-way arrow. From there, a material can only go downhill: After outliving its usefulness as a carpet or a bench, the next stop is the landfill or incinerator.

Even with recycling, there are limits to how long an item can circulate. The idea that our recyclable waste will be “cycled indefinitely” is a widespread myth, according to Dr. Trevor Zink and Dr. Roland Geyer.

“The belief that recycling automatically diverts material from landfill ignores the fact that, even in the most ideal recycling cases, material degrades in quality, diminishes in quantity (yield loss), or both during each use and recovery (i.e., collection and reprocessing) cycle,” Zink and Geyer wrote in a 2018 paper.

https://oceana.org/blog/recycling-myth-month-plastic-bottle-you-thought-you-recycled-may-have-been-downcycled-instead


And speaking of Polyethelene terephthalate:

 

This is especially true for single-use plastics. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the lightweight resin commonly used to make beverage bottles – diminishes in quality when recycled. According to Zink and Geyer, these bottles are often downcycled into fiber or wood replacements instead of being recycled into new bottles.

And if a manufacturer really wants to return a used bottle to its original purpose, they might need to add virgin plastics to the mix to achieve the same quality. That’s right: You have to add new plastics to recycle old ones.

PET is one of the most valuable types of plastic, so you can imagine how difficult it is to effectively recycle other plastic resins. Industry-funded website PlasticFilmRecycling.org notes that plastic film – a material notoriously difficult to recycle – can be downcycled into composite lumber and refashioned into decks, benches, and playground sets. In other cases, plastic air pillows or grocery bags may find new life as containers, crates, and pipes.

Oh yes, I forgot all about film plastics. Most often made from either High (#2) or Low (#4) density Poly Ethelene, this already virtually useless plastic product tends to finds its way from the grocery stores recycling box to the impoverished countrysides of nations like  Malaysia,  Vietnam or any other nation that wherein illegal importers can set up illegal recycling depots.

Yes, that is a thing. It has been since China slammed the door too close to all western originating recycled goods (which have been declining in quality for years). With enough of their own on account of a growing population and growing fatigue of dealing with all manner of unsorted and/or contaminated recyclables from other First World nations, the CCP put its foot down. With every city, town, and waste removal company in the western world now sitting on millions of tons of scrap plastic they could not pay anyone to move, the criminal underground seen an opportunity. Make some cash off the valuable material, and as for the worthless crap that gets sent with it . . . just dump it by the roadside.

Greenpeace Malaysia has been conducting a field investigation on the broken system of recycling and how it impacts Malaysian society. The findings were shocking: a new ‘dump site’ of plastic waste from more than 19 countries — most of them are developed countries. The investigation found illegal practices, and blatant violations causing environmental pollution as well as harming people’s health conditions.
Since China banned plastic waste imports in January 2018, countries in Southeast Asia – particularly Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia – have accepted an increased amount of plastic waste. Between January and July 2018 alone, Malaysia imported 754,000 metric tonnes of plastic — the weight of approximately 100,000 large elephants. It came from countries like the United States, Japan, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Canadian plastic ‘recycling’ polluting unregulated facilities in Southeast Asia

I could also get into the dynamics of how western nations have a tendency to flooding Africa with millions of tons of both e-waste and used clothing, both of which generate millions of tons of pollution yearly. However, we are already WAY into the weeds.

Getting back on track, despite the altruism behind the project of housing the homeless in a shelter built of sturdy and durable plastic, I fear that this is just another case of downcycling. Living in the same climate as Winnipeg (where this project’s creator is located) I can tell you that the bitter winter cold is not the only extreme that one has to deal with. We also have the baking hot summer sun which will promote photodegradation (depending on whether or not the plastic is protected). At the end of the lifecycle of the average poly building material, will what is left be of enough quality to be worth recycling?

And speaking of recycling, the limitation in the choice of material bothers me a bit. Only High-Density Poly Ethelene is proposed to be used for this purpose. 

While I know that I did in fact address my own concern here previously when talking about the different melting points of different plastics, frankly, it’s hard to see this as a solution to the problem when a big part of the problem is every not #1, #2 and #4 resin. Not that putting all them discarded milk jugs to good use isn’t a bad idea . . . it’s just hardly addressing the problem when that material already has a market. Unlike the hundreds of tons of PETE being dumped yearly in Manitoba alone.

According to the following source, the technology for using combined (once thought to be incompatible) resin types is improving, though it is still cheaper and easier to use single resins. In particular High-Density Poly Ethylene, and even more pointedly, milk jugs. Since their opaque nature allows for the end result to be pigmented into whatever colour is desired.

Polymer/Polymer Systems is an interesting new technology developed by Rutgers University, which discovered that specific blends of polymers, normally thought to be incompatible (such as polyethylene and polystyrene), can form composites with properties that dramatically exceed the expected performance of the blend. Under the right conditions of mixing and component levels, an inter-penetrating network of the polymer can achieve a better balance of modulus and impact strength.

A Review of Recycled Plastic Lumber Production

The additives section is also interesting. It looks like there are many options available for weatherproofing outdoor installations (much as metal-infused pigments).

Another thing that comes to mind upon reading that source is that lumber and building materials made from recycled plastic are already a fairly well-established market. If Josh plans on sticking to only sourcing HDPE, then I can see why both crowdfunding links are so under-funded. Why pay someone to follow the path of innovation towards the wheel when the wheel already exists in a well-defined form?

Keep in mind, this is only the case in terms of the single-stream polymer production process that seems to be the goal here. If the goal were finding a way to cheaply manufacture durable building materials and furniture out of combined resins, then that could certainly be an opening in the wider market. I can almost guarantee that such an end result would be desirable since the raw materials are dirt cheap, and any company using the methodology could market the hell out of the Green aspect of it.

I will now return to Josh’s Kickstarter page.

 

Reusability and recyclability

The product is made from recycled plastics and can be recycled again and again into new building materials

 

Are you sure about that?

Though I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt, this seems to go against everything that we’ve learned about the overall plastics recycling system.

 

Sustainable materials

I plan to collect recycled hdpe #2 plastics from local business’s and turn them into plastic building materials to create temporary shelters for the ones in need

 

I have to say that sustainable materials sticks out like a sore thumb in this context. After all, the material collected from the businesses will almost certainly be sourced from virgin polymers. That is not sustainable.

Of course, whether or not the term actually applies will depend on if the end product is indeed recyclable (or more accurately, if the financials make sense for it to happen). As such, I will again give the benefit of the doubt.

 

Environmentally friendly factories

I’ll select a plant that minimizes its own impact

 

That statement is far too broad to even have any meaning.

 

Sustainable Distribution

Plastic pallets/shipping crates can also be made from recycled plastics!

 

Again, with that word . . .

Putting aside the argument I made earlier, the plastic pallets and shipping crates come with their own problems. That is, the creation of yet more microplastics to escape into the environment as the pallets and crates are slowly worn down by the grinding wear and tear of life in the distribution chain.

And by grinding, I mean quite literally. Working in a warehouse environment that moves around many pallets in a day (mostly wood, but with the occasional plastic one), the floor where the pallets are stacked before return to the DC is often covered with splinters of all sizes. Though plastic would have the same problem, the resulting particles will be much smaller. And much more contaminating of the natural environment should they be released outdoors.

As for the solution to this, the first thing that comes to mind is to stick to the tried and tested (wood). Though the lumber industry tends to be unsustainable as it exists today, this is not an unsolvable problem. Trees are self-replicating after all.

If you could find a solution to make contaminated cardboard and/or low-quality paper fibres mouldable and rigid enough to use as pallets or shipping crates, even better.  These will no doubt also shed fibres during their lifetime, but the result should be less problematic than microplastic (depending on the binding chemical, of course). Not to mention that the use of hemp could be considered as an alternative to cutting into the valuable high-quality paper supply if the low-quality supply somehow vanishes.

Though this post is filled with critiques that could be viewed as anything from nitpicky to unreasonable, I do only have good intentions in mind. Whilst my inner cynic definitely makes a strong appearance in this piece, it is only because people have to be cynical when it comes to crowdfunding.

When it comes to coming up with inventions and business ventures, no one blames visionaries for having no bounds in terms of the potential they see in their projects. However, this optimism can come at the expense of blindness to phenomenons that may not bode well for the vision but are not considered (or just not known about).
In the traditional way in which business ventures have been seed-funded, these concerns are addressed by business coaches, loan officers and such. Though their judgements may not always be correct (such is the way of humans), the process generally serves as a way to ensure funding only goes where it’s most useful. Not only does such due diligence protect investors, but it could also protect visionaries from putting too much funding into what may well end up being a failed venture.

While it is easy for crowdfunding fans to view the technology as a way of evening the playing field for all future entrepreneurs (I really hate that word), what crowdfunding lacks is this inherent vetting process. Your backers are just as invested (blinded?) by the dream as the founder, thus potentially bad ideas end up getting WAY more traction than they otherwise would (or should).

In closing, this post may seem harsh given the details. Nonetheless, any venture worth its weight will be able to easily brush past such critiques with facts and details. If critiques do not serve to make a business venture stronger, then I would really question its long-term viability.

And besides, if you think that THIS is harsh, you should see what I wrote about Solar Freakin Roadways.

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