Sunday, May 6, 2012


(Western Front) - By Nick Thomas

A group of Western students is working on a method of recycling plastic trash still littering Haiti after an earthquake. The waste will be transformed into building materials for constructing homes for the locals.

Though the 7.0-magnitude earthquake occurred more than two years ago, without a central garbage system in the country, Haiti is still drowning in the aftermath.

A pastor from a Lutheran Church in Kent contacted plastics engineering technology professor Nikki Larson to develop a process for recycling plastic garbage. The pastor has a sister ministry in Haiti and has helped with cleaning up the country several times since the earthquake.

“[The Haitians] either burn [the plastic] or throw it into their waterways,” Larson said. “You don’t even see water anymore in the canals — it’s just plastic.”

Larson is teaming up with five engineering students to develop a method for recycling plastic waste.

Using heat and pressure, strips of plastic from bottles and other plastic waste will be melted together into a 10-inch square, flat panel, Larson said. Some of these panels will be joined together to make larger panels for building materials. Others will be formed into specific structures such as ridge caps or L-shaped roofing tiles that sit on top of houses.

Western senior Paul Yaeger, who is also a part of the team, said they devised a method of forming the plastic panels using concrete slabs and sheet metal. The method is unique enough that the school could potentially patent the idea.

“We told Nikki about [this process] and she just thought it was awesome,” Yaeger said. “We talked to the school, and they did a background on it to see if anyone else had done it — no one had.”

The team is looking into using the abundant kilns in Haiti for processing sugar cane and rum as a means to melt the plastic, Yaeger said.

This project is not a class, and for some students involved, it’s not even for class credit, Larson said. While some students are participating and using this as their senior project, others simply want to lend a helping hand.

“We’re pretty close around here with our students, or at least I am with my students,” Larson said. “If I get excited about something I usually tell all my students, and some of them get excited with me.”

Western senior Frances Scharnhorst volunteered her time to the project and is not earning class credit for participating.

Scharnhorst was working on a different project last year but was frustrated with how the other group members were self-interested and only hoping to add it to a resume, she said. Larson’s group gives her the opportunity to work with people who care about what they are doing, she said.

Scharnhorst’s interest in joining the project was influenced by her grandfather’s activism in the region.

“I was raised around my grandfather who was a priest with an episcopal church,” she said. “He has gone to Haiti, and he has gone to Ecuador — he has gone everywhere to help people.”

Scharnhorst said, while her grandfather doesn’t understand how plastic properties work, since he mainly works with stone in Haiti, he is hopeful the project will come together.

The project currently does not have an expected completion date and will continue indefinitely until the procedure is fully drafted.

Upon completion, the team will travel to Haiti to ensure the process they develop will be feasible using the country’s currently available technology.

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