Turning old plastic bags into bricks

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Wouldn’t it be great to take the plastic bags that fill refuse stations in India and convert them into bricks, strong enough to build houses fit for monsoon rains? Danish student Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard is well on her way to doing just that.

Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard at a refuse station in India.

Vestergaard’s project has received a real boost after she won a student competition, the ‘Green Challenge’, at Technical University of Denmark (DTU), where she recently completed her Master of Science in Engineering degree. Providing a much-needed injection of capital, the victory also brought recognition of her idea.

“The ‘Green Challenge’ gave me the chance to present my project to a panel of critical judges. I have put my concept to the toughest test – and it came out on top. This has given me a firm belief that I’m on to something here,” Vestergaard says.

The idea for the project originally arose in 2013 when, as part of her studies in design and innovation, Vestergaard spent three months in India developing a refuse collection system for the extremely poor city of Joygopalpur. The Indian people are already committed to collecting refuse, as they can earn a few rupees by delivering it to recycling stations.

Pressure testing of a brick created from soft plastic waste

The colourful plastic bag bricks can withstand up to six tonnes of pressure. (Photo: Thorkild Amdi Christensen.)

However, they generally leave soft plastic waste behind, because it’s apparently difficult to find uses for it. As a result, this type of plastic is causing an increasingly significant refuse problem in India.

When Vestergaard noted how the clay-brick houses were almost washed away during the monsoon season, she quickly put two and two together. Would it be possible, she wondered, to use the plastic to make bricks – thus solving two problems simultaneously?

Withstanding six tons of pressure

On her return to Denmark, Vestergaard began experimenting and melting plastic into moulds in an ordinary oven. She has now developed a series of plastic brick prototypes. Subsequent testing at DTU has revealed that the bricks can withstand up to six tonnes of pressure.

Vestergaard has also succeeded in including foil-covered crisp bags in her brick concept. This is a major achievement, given that these packets make up a large proportion of the plastic refuse. The bricks can contain up to 60 per cent crisp bags without this compromising their strength.

Vestergaard’s success in the student competition has given her renewed energy to continue working on the concept. Instead of spending the months following graduation seeking employment, Vestergaard will now immerse herself full-time in her brick project. The next step will be to return to India.

Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard showing her plastic bag bricks

Lise Fuglsang Vestergaard presenting her plastic bag bricks during an exhibition in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Thorkild Amdi Christensen.)

The challenge is to raise capital for the trip. Vestergaard aims to do so in partnership with the Danish NGO InnoAid, which identified the original refuse collection project in Joygopalpur.

Vestergaard hopes that her ‘Green Challenge’ victory can help open other avenues for financing the project. She has also started collecting funds on
her website.

To establish brick production in India, Vestergaard has to come up with a method for melting the plastic that does not involve electricity – because there is no access to mains electricity in Joygopalpur. The town’s only refrigerator is powered by a small, petrol-powered generator. Vestergaard is therefore keen to test a solar powered barbecue.

“I’ve just received a solar powered barbecue. It’s hard to test it in Denmark at the moment because the weather is cloudy here in autumn, but I hope to test it properly on my next trip to India.”

Adapted from article by Lotte Krull, DTU News

Read about another student project describing how used plastic packaging can be transformed into raw material for high grade plastic products.


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