There is a plastic pollution problem in our world.

There is a shortage of building materials for housing.

The poor need jobs.

Where those three bad things collide we find extreme poverty and opportunity.  If we are looking for extreme poverty, it is there.  On the other hand, if we are looking for opportunity, it’s there too.  The recycled plastic block house is an example of looking for opportunity and finding it in one of the most unlikely of places.

The recycled plastic block house started with a conversation with Ronald Omyonga.  Mr. Omyonga is an architect in Nairobi Kenya.  He was raised by a single parent who worked hard to provide for her four sons.  Mr. Omyonga never lost the vision of where he came from and where he needed to go.  His passion and vision is for holistic solutions to the problems of the poor.  His holistic vision  involves creating commerce while creating houses.  He’s searching for solutions that provide long term answers as well as the immediate and obvious.

Mr. Omyonga was in Dallas, Texas to discuss his holistic concepts with engineers wanting to help the third world poor.  It was at one of those meet and greets that I met him.  He personally challenged me to find a way to recycle plastic trash into a building material.  He wanted the process to be simple and if possible, manual.  His desire was not only to have a process that recycled the plastic trash, but to have one that created commerce by providing jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs.

About a week later I woke up baling plastic trash into blocks the same way you would bale straw and my life hasn’t been the same since.

There is a plastic pollution problem in our world.

Most of us don’t see a real plastic pollution problem because we put our bottles and containers in our recycling bin for the trash truck to pick up.  We hear about it being recycled and feel good about doing something important.  We are.  But what we separate to be processed is a small amount of the plastic trash that we generate and send to the landfill or out into the landscape every day.  That’s because plastic recycling is a lot like mining for minerals in the earth.  What is mined is only what we find plentiful and easy to process.

Most of our plastics are difficult to recycle because they have to be sorted by resin, the base material used to make the plastic.  Color is another factor that determines the value and end use of the recycled plastic.  The plastic trash that does the most damage isn’t recycled because it either can’t be, like styrofoam, or it is too difficult, like the film plastics we see in shopping bags hanging on shrubs and fences, in our oceans, our forests, and our cities.

Recycling is expensive because it is inefficent.  The cost of handling all the plastics isn’t offset by the funds generated.  This won’t change because when recycling is profitable the cost of the new plastic will reflect the added cost of using recycled components.

There is a shortage of building materials for housing.

The best example of  this is Haiti.  There are no more trees to cut down for lumber.  There are no plants that make cement for making concrete.  Everything needed to make a house as we see it now has to be imported.  In Haiti as in  most poor countries we see the buidling materials that are brought in diverted for government and projects for the wealthy.  Another thing I see in Haiti is schemes for housing that are inappropriate because of climate and culture or projects that reflect an attitude that it is “good enough” for the poor.

The poor need jobs

It is true they need jobs.  But like us they want, deserve even, opportunity.  All of us know the difference.  We’ve all had jobs and most of us have experienced the thrill of opportunity.  The poor are us, without opportunity.  If we want to change their situation, then we provide opportunity.

Recycled Plastic Block Houses’ Place in all This

Recycling plastic  isn’t a one fits all thing.  That is what has made recycling plastic such a difficult problem.  The process of making recycled plastic building blocks provides a platform for 100 percent plastic trash recycling.  The plastic trash has to be handled to make the blocks.  The valuable plastics that the recycling industry wants can be separated out and be sold to the recyclers.  This can contribute a substantial amount to offset the cost of a recycled plastic building block.  The current price a recycler will pay for a ton of separated number 1 thru 3 plastics is $400.00.  That comes out to twenty cents a pound.

The remaining plastic trash can be processed into recycled plastic trash blocks for houses.  This includes styrofoam and the film plastic products.  The combination of the different plastics devalues the block for scrap value to nil.  This will protect the plastic block and the house made of it from those who salvage  plastics.  If the blocks are being made at a reycling center, the recycled plastic blocks are made from plastic trash that normally would be sent off to the landfill.

A criteria Mr Omyonga gave me to consider was creating commerce.  That’s not just creating jobs, that is creating opportunities.

There is opportunity for those who work hard locating and providing plastic trash to the facility with the machine for making the recycled plastic blocks.  Micro financing can provide opportunity for the entrepreneurs wanting to own the machine and make the recycled plastic blocks.  Opportunity for those who become skilled at building with the recycled plastic blocks is obvious.  There will always be those who are good with their hands and minds that will find recycled plastic blocks another medium for acquiring skills.  There are many opporunities available.  A welding shop that specializes in the manufacturing and maintaining the machines would be one.   Transportation and retails sales of the blocks would be a couple more.  Engineers and architects would find the recycled plastic blocks a medium to express their ingenuity and skill.