Why plastic waste is the perfect building material

Why plastic waste is the perfect building material 

The world produces around 400 million tonnes of plastic each year of which only 9% is recycled. Plastic which does not decompose is a significant driver of climate change and has been found in the depths of our oceans as well as on the peaks of our highest mountains

Scientists estimate that over the next two decades the amount of plastic waste in our oceans will triple.

Added to this, the UN warns that the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the plastic crisis. Around the world the demand for plastic masks, gloves and protective medical gear has soared. It would seem, then, that plastic is an inescapable problem that shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. 

Faced with this realisation, people around the world are developing innovative solutions to extract plastic waste from their environment and put it to good use. From Canada to Colombia to Ivory Coast, people are converting plastic waste into building materials and using it to construct homes, schools, community centres and storage facilities. 

“The problem is not plastic, the economics is the problem,” says Sibele Cestari, a researcher from Queen’s University, Belfast, who specialises in plastic materials. 

“All plastic can be recycled or upcycled, but most isn’t because doing so remains unprofitable,” she explains.  

Plastic is the perfect building material, says Cestari. “It is cheap [to convert into building materials], available and easy to mould.” The material is durable, waterproof and insulating, making it suitable for building in many different types of climate, she adds. 

It consumes much less heat or electricity than other building materials, notes Cestari. Most plastics melt at around 200 °C, whereas glass and aluminium have much higher melting points.

The researcher believes the world should reevaluate its relationship with plastic and learn to use plastic waste in a sustainable way. Construction is one effective way to do this. “In addition to removing the plastic from the environment, you are putting it into a fixed application. It will not circulate again,” she says. 

The size of the construction industry is another benefit. “If you want to find a solution for the plastic waste, you have to find a solution that has the same scale. It needs to be industrial to make it worth it,” says Cestari.

Transforming waste into property

It is estimated that every minute one million plastic bottles are sold around the world. It’s thought that less than half of those are recycled and only 7% of them are repurposed into new bottles. But some businesses are finding ways to put them to good use.

Last year, Canadian company JD Composites built the world’s first house entirely constructed from recycled plastic bottles. The beach house in Nova Scotia, eastern Canada, is made from more than 600,000 bottles and is hurricane resistant. 

David Saulnier set up JD Composites after feeling “disgusted” by the amount of plastic waste washing up on his local beach. “There’s so much of it. We have to get rid of it,” he says emphasising that his company doesn’t promote plastic but rather “the use of plastic waste,”

The roof, walls and floor of the plastic beach house are all made from recycled bottles which have been melted down and turned into foam panels. One panel contains over 5,000 recycled bottles. 

“Plastic is very resilient, energy efficient and doesn’t cost a lot to build with,” says Saulnier. A home made from recycled plastic is so well-insulated that it could save between $60,000 to $80,000 (£46,000 - £61,000) in energy bills over 25 years, he adds. 

JD Composites has built two houses in Canada to date as well as decks, patios and storage facilities for fishing factories, using around two million plastic bottles. Next year the company plans to construct another 50 homes and expand its operations to the east coast of the US. 

“If these homes [start] going up all around the world, we will be getting rid of a lot of plastic,” Saulnier says. 

Plastic classrooms

Social enterprise Conceptos Plasticos uses plastic waste to build homes and classrooms in Colombia and Ivory Coast. 

As well as building in a more sustainable way, Conceptos Plasticos aims to provide affordable housing, employment and a steady income to disadvantaged communities, while tackling the plastic crisis in both countries. 

“We use plastic that nobody wants, plastic that is very difficult to recycle. We give value to this type of waste and empower people in the recycling business,” says Oscar Mendez, founder of Conceptos Plasticos. The social enterprise employs many women to collect plastic waste and sell it on to recyclers. For many, this is their only form of income which they use to pay for their children’s schooling and food. 

“We are supporting thousands of people. They can still have some [form of] income, even during coronavirus,” Mendez says. 

In Ivory Coast, Conceptos Plasticos has partnered with Unicef to create classrooms from plastic waste, where only 5% of plastic is recycled. They plan to build over 500 classrooms from plastic waste in one year in the west African country. 

The plastic building blocks slot together easily, enabling the construction of an entire house in five days. “It is like lego. You can play and change the construction,” says Mendez. Plastic is impermeable and does not conduct heat, making it a good building material for hot and cold countries, he adds. 

To date Conceptos Plasticos has used over 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste to construct 12,000 square meters of classrooms, houses and shelters. Mendez says the plan is to build a further 31,000 square meters of classrooms, amounting to 2,500 tonnes of recycled plastic.

Building a Better Future A series of films and articles produced by BBC StoryWorks, exploring what the construction sector is doing to become more sustainable. Read More

Why plastic waste is the perfect building material 

The world produces around 400 million tonnes of plastic each year of which only 9% is recycled. Plastic which does not decompose is a significant driver of climate change and has been found in the depths of our oceans as well as on the peaks of our highest mountains

Scientists estimate that over the next two decades the amount of plastic waste in our oceans will triple.

Added to this, the UN warns that the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the plastic crisis. Around the world the demand for plastic masks, gloves and protective medical gear has soared. It would seem, then, that plastic is an inescapable problem that shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. 

Faced with this realisation, people around the world are developing innovative solutions to extract plastic waste from their environment and put it to good use. From Canada to Colombia to Ivory Coast, people are converting plastic waste into building materials and using it to construct homes, schools, community centres and storage facilities. 

“The problem is not plastic, the economics is the problem,” says Sibele Cestari, a researcher from Queen’s University, Belfast, who specialises in plastic materials. 

“All plastic can be recycled or upcycled, but most isn’t because doing so remains unprofitable,” she explains.  

Plastic is the perfect building material, says Cestari. “It is cheap [to convert into building materials], available and easy to mould.” The material is durable, waterproof and insulating, making it suitable for building in many different types of climate, she adds. 

It consumes much less heat or electricity than other building materials, notes Cestari. Most plastics melt at around 200 °C, whereas glass and aluminium have much higher melting points.

The researcher believes the world should reevaluate its relationship with plastic and learn to use plastic waste in a sustainable way. Construction is one effective way to do this. “In addition to removing the plastic from the environment, you are putting it into a fixed application. It will not circulate again,” she says. 

The size of the construction industry is another benefit. “If you want to find a solution for the plastic waste, you have to find a solution that has the same scale. It needs to be industrial to make it worth it,” says Cestari.

Transforming waste into property

It is estimated that every minute one million plastic bottles are sold around the world. It’s thought that less than half of those are recycled and only 7% of them are repurposed into new bottles. But some businesses are finding ways to put them to good use.

Last year, Canadian company JD Composites built the world’s first house entirely constructed from recycled plastic bottles. The beach house in Nova Scotia, eastern Canada, is made from more than 600,000 bottles and is hurricane resistant. 

David Saulnier set up JD Composites after feeling “disgusted” by the amount of plastic waste washing up on his local beach. “There’s so much of it. We have to get rid of it,” he says emphasising that his company doesn’t promote plastic but rather “the use of plastic waste,”

The roof, walls and floor of the plastic beach house are all made from recycled bottles which have been melted down and turned into foam panels. One panel contains over 5,000 recycled bottles. 

“Plastic is very resilient, energy efficient and doesn’t cost a lot to build with,” says Saulnier. A home made from recycled plastic is so well-insulated that it could save between $60,000 to $80,000 (£46,000 - £61,000) in energy bills over 25 years, he adds. 

JD Composites has built two houses in Canada to date as well as decks, patios and storage facilities for fishing factories, using around two million plastic bottles. Next year the company plans to construct another 50 homes and expand its operations to the east coast of the US. 

“If these homes [start] going up all around the world, we will be getting rid of a lot of plastic,” Saulnier says. 

Plastic classrooms

Social enterprise Conceptos Plasticos uses plastic waste to build homes and classrooms in Colombia and Ivory Coast. 

As well as building in a more sustainable way, Conceptos Plasticos aims to provide affordable housing, employment and a steady income to disadvantaged communities, while tackling the plastic crisis in both countries. 

“We use plastic that nobody wants, plastic that is very difficult to recycle. We give value to this type of waste and empower people in the recycling business,” says Oscar Mendez, founder of Conceptos Plasticos. The social enterprise employs many women to collect plastic waste and sell it on to recyclers. For many, this is their only form of income which they use to pay for their children’s schooling and food. 

“We are supporting thousands of people. They can still have some [form of] income, even during coronavirus,” Mendez says. 

In Ivory Coast, Conceptos Plasticos has partnered with Unicef to create classrooms from plastic waste, where only 5% of plastic is recycled. They plan to build over 500 classrooms from plastic waste in one year in the west African country. 

The plastic building blocks slot together easily, enabling the construction of an entire house in five days. “It is like lego. You can play and change the construction,” says Mendez. Plastic is impermeable and does not conduct heat, making it a good building material for hot and cold countries, he adds. 

To date Conceptos Plasticos has used over 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste to construct 12,000 square meters of classrooms, houses and shelters. Mendez says the plan is to build a further 31,000 square meters of classrooms, amounting to 2,500 tonnes of recycled plastic.

Building a Better Future A series of films and articles produced by BBC StoryWorks, exploring what the construction sector is doing to become more sustainable. Read More