Will This Student’s Big Idea Save Homes During Monsoon Season?

Forget cement and bricks. It’s all about plastic waste.

(Photo: Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard)

Dec 4, 2014· 1 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

When Danish design graduate student Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard spent three months last year in a small village just south of Kolkata, India, she noticed three things: There was plastic trash everywhere, building supplies were scarce, and it rained a lot—a whole lot.

“Many of the houses here are made out of clay and wash away during the heavy monsoons,” said Vestergaard, 30, who is back in the village of Joygopalpur. “I put the two problems together.”

Her solution: melting and molding plastic waste into “bricks” that could form walls for homes, something she believed would be strong enough to withstand the relentless rainfall. Vestergaard returned to Denmark to test her theory, creating molds and “cooking” them in her oven at home. Her main ingredient was plastic snack bags, which she noticed were a major waste problem in India and could be found all over the streets. The result is bricks made from 60 percent plastic snack bags and 40 percent a combination of other plastic products.

But there was one problem—in places such as Joygopalpur, electricity is limited, and there are no conventional ovens. So she came up with the idea of using a solar-powered grill.

“What is the biggest energy source in India?” she says. “The sun. So I thought, why not try to use that?”

That got the attention of judges from the Green Challenge contest sponsored by the Technical University of Denmark, who awarded Vestergaard a $2,500 solar grill this year. Along with support from Danish NGO InnoAid and local Indian NGO Joygopalpur Gram Vikash Kendra, she returned to India this year and is testing the grill and investigating a mixture of wastes.

She’s confident the project will succeed—her team has already successfully melted plastic and created solid bricks with the grill, and now she’s working on creating larger molds.

Her idea, however, isn’t without its challenges and critics. Historically, poor villagers have used concrete and clay to build their houses, and convincing them to use plastic bricks could be difficult. Sashi Sivramkrishna, an economist at the Narsee Monjee Institute for Management Studies, told SciDev.Net that the idea “seemed fantastic,” but that “if the plastic bricks are targeted at the poor, [the project] will definitely fail because the poor want a concrete house just like everyone else in India.”

Vestergaard disagrees, citing the workshops she has hosted in the village to learn what community members think of the plastic bricks and how they can be applied.

“They are really keen on the building material,” she said. “It could be used on houses, yes, but also on embankment enforcements, walking paths, even roads.”

For her, the best solution comes from listening to the residents.

“We are working to ensure that it fits their needs and it makes sense for them,” she said.