Award-winning idea for recycling plastic in refugee camps

Three students have just received a Project Plastic award for their sustainable and economically interesting concept for recycling plastics in refugee camps.

“It’s probably the most well-executed project I’ve ever worked on.” These are the words of Marlene Schmidt Pedersen, one of three DTU students who have just received a Project Plastic award for their concept for improving sustainability in refugee camps.

The project was prepared last spring, while corona swept across Denmark and the rest of the world. The students were therefore prevented from visiting the refugee camp in Uganda for which their concept is designed. However, this gave them time to prepare many different analyses, tests, and practical trial projects at home in Denmark.

“We did this so comprehensively and thoroughly that when we eventually submitted the project, we didn’t have the usual feeling that if we’d just had a little more time we could have done much more,” says Marlene.

CARE Denmark is behind the initiative

The initiative to make the Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda as sustainable as possible came from the relief organisation CARE Denmark. The organization asked various companies to contribute input and solutions. The refugee camp was originally intended as a temporary place to live, but the approximately 120,000 refugees live in the camp for around 15 years on average. They are therefore allocated a plot of land, given the opportunity to build a house, and can also start other projects to make money while staying in the camp.

“We chose to look at collection and recycling of plastics in the refugee camp along with the Danish architectural firm Lendager Group, which specializes in circular solutions. We thought through the whole structure of the concept and considered how best to design it to appeal to the refugees who are going to take over and make a living from implementing our idea,” says Marlene.

The concept is being further developed

The students have outlined the whole process needed to ensure that the the plastic waste resources in the camp are used sustainably. The first step was to consider how the plastic can be collected. Here payment is an important incentive, but at the same time it must be ensured that only recyclable plastic is paid for, while plastic that can’t be used again must be avoided in order not to become a financial burden on the project.

“Along with a sustainable collection and payment model, we’ve created a concept for sorting, cleaning and granulating the recyclable plastic. This is done with very simple machines that are manufactured as open source by a company in the Netherlands, Precious Plastic, and can be operated in the basic conditions of a refugee camp,” says Marlene.

The hope is to bring the concept to other camps

The simple machines are also used to process the collected plastic. Based on financial analyses and interviews with refugees in the camp, the students have found that it would be most beneficial to produce three different products.

These are, firstly, plastic posts that can be used to build houses, fences, furniture and more. In addition, injection-moulded roof panels and finally plastic cords produced using a simple machine that cuts up, for example, a plastic bottle to make a strong cord.

The extensive results of the students’ research and analyses have been handed over to Lendager Group, which together with CARE Denmark is continuing to develop the concept for use in the refugee camp. The hope is that the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, will take over and implement the concept in refugee camps around the world.

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