It’s a sad reflection of our times when eight million tons of plastic are dumped into oceans every year. Humongous islands of waste now circulate in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.
Deciding to take a stand against these alarming statistics, a group of Colombians looked to the most admired of all building blocks, Lego, and on a larger scale, began turning local plastic waste in custom-made construction materials.
Conceptos Plásticos is a home-grown start up that in July won the prestigious 2016 The Venture award for entrepreneurship and creating social change through impact. So imagine if all the plastic dumped into the earth or thrown into our rivers and oceans could actually be recycled to build homes, schools, and temporary shelters in war-torn zones? Well, this is the motivating philosophy of Colombia’s eco-plastic pioneers and brain-child of Bogotá-based architect Oscar Méndez.
The Venture awarded the Colombian initiative US$300,000 in prize money and chose this project over 27 other global entries. “The aim of Conceptos Plásticos is to provide decent housing solutions to vulnerable communities,” said Méndez at the award ceremony in New York.
The project took several years in the making and a partnership between Méndez and musician Fernando Llanos.
During the last two years, the Conceptos Plásticos team melted and molded 300 tons of plastic into building blocks for the construction of eco-homes in rural areas impacted by the internal conflict, such as a temporary shelter in Guapí, Cauca, for 42 displaced families. Plans are underway to build homes in marginalized communities in Cartagena, La Guajira, Chocó, and San Andrés. According to Méndez, a one-family home for four people, takes only five days to build.
As reported by the United Nations Environmental Program, 22% to 43% of all produced plastic worldwide ends up in landfills and poses a serious health risk to surrounding communities.
Beside the squandering of potentially recyclable resources, plastic and rubber waste can serve as a long-term social and economic solution for a housing crisis in Colombia. “By using only 2% of all the plastic produced we can fix Latin America’s housing in just 10 years,” believes the architect.
The Conceptos Plásticos construction is 30% cheaper than conventional methods in rural areas, with the advantage that the homes can be dismantled and moved elsewhere. Furthermore, considering the blocks’ components are plastic-based, the resulting material is strong, durable, and earthquake resistant. The average lifespan of a Lego-like block is 500 years and is able to withstand extreme weather conditions. Additives also ensure the blocks are fire resistant.
But the process isn’t just about bricks. It helps bring communities together to participate in the construction of their own affordable housing. The price of a single-family house starts at $12 million pesos or US$4,000. The final cost is measured by kilogram of plastic processed, rather than square meter built.
Speaking at The Venture, the Conceptos Plásticos team expressed that, “if the world does not start addressing the amount of plastic waste we are throwing away, the statistics for 2050 are terrifying.”
Conceptos Plásticos’ innovation is hardly a drop in the ocean when it comes to effectively dealing with waste in Colombia, a nation that in April enacted Law 163 to regulate the use of single plastic bags. But at the heart of recycling is education, and inspiring future entrepreneurs to work for real solutions to the challenging environmental, social and economic conditions of this 21st century.