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Can recycling help homelessness?

High school students have created a truly innovative way to potentially solve two of Auckland's biggest problems at the same time.

Earlier this year, a group of 15- and 16-year-olds at Alfriston College in Manakau got a big wake-up call when they found out that there were at least 50 people sleeping in cars at their local park. 

Rather than responding by donating or fundraising, the students are doing something different that they hope will benefit the environment as well as their local community.

The team’s plan is to create cheap and sustainable temporary houses by recycling plastic bottles, which they hope can also be used as ‘popup’ shelters for disaster relief.

"Auckland fills an entire rugby field of waste every week,” says Didar, 16. “So we want to do our part in helping to cut down how much of that goes to landfill."

Plastic not so fantastic

The students explain that plastic makes up 10 per cent of all our waste yet we only recycle a fraction of this plastic. They also tell us, more worryingly, that plastic waste takes hundreds of years to degrade - and that when it does start to break down, the tiny 'microplastic' particles are toxic to sea life. These particles could end up affecting us through the fish and seafood we eat.

So how can we lock up as much plastic as possible in a dry, warm, durable and structurally sound building?

To answer that question, the team enlisted the help of architect Waikare Komene from The Roots Creative Entrepreneurs. With Waikare, they learnt about all the different ways in which they could build a sustainable house and are now exploring their options.

"We all come from different backgrounds, from environmental science to engineering, so we all learnt different things," says Tui, 16. "I was surprised by all the types of house structures we could build, and how there's so many ways we can use the plastic bottles as building materials - not just in things like strength but also in the design of how the house looks."

Kreesan, 16, tells us that the plastic bottles don't need to stay as bottles when being used to construct the building:

"It's more difficult to work with complete bottles because they come in different shapes and sizes. So we've been looking at melting the plastic down into building blocks, which also means that we can use up a lot more waste bottles to make a building. We've heard from another school that they melt their bottles down into tiles, so that's something else we could try."

From plan to prototype

The team have just set up a competition between different year groups in the school, complete with cash prizes, to boost their bottle numbers before starting to build.

"The competition will make more of us collect more plastic bottles than we would normally, which is better for the environment as well as giving us more bottles to work with," Didar explains.

The students' next step is to visit inspirational sustainable housing organisations like Habitat for Humanity to fine-tune their architectural plans before beginning construction in October.

To keep things simple, the students have decided that they are going to build four model-sized buildings and then choose the best option to construct as a full-sized greenhouse for the school.

"We can use what we've learnt to teach other people about the environment and how to grow plants using the plastic bottles they don't need," says Mathew, 15.

The students point out that even though they will be building a greenhouse, this will be the prototype for the houses they want to build.

In other words, the same materials and structural plan could be used to create the temporary shelters that homeless South Aucklanders need.

Read the students' blog about the project.

About the project

The students' work is being supported by funding from the South Auckland Participatory Science Platform (PSP), which is managed by Sarah Morgan at COMET Auckland.

Lionel Hotene and student participants

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform is a Curious Minds initiative, with pilot programmes running in South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago. In 2015, funded projects included conservation, health, energy production, environmental monitoring, crop production and local ecology. Read more

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