Recycled Plastic Block Houses

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Plastic block press showing all parts and measurements.

Final plastic block under 3,400 pounds per front wheel weight. The block compressed about three quarters of an inch with the weight on it.  The block returned to its original shape when the weight was removed.

Turn low value plastic trash into valuable building blocks with a $300 homemade press.

December 15, 2010, was a big day for Harvey Lacey, the maker of a hand-operated press that turns plastic trash into building blocks. That was the day Harvey made his first plastic block. His website at RecycledPlasticBlockHouses.comchronicles his efforts to make a block press and plastic building blocks.

Harvey says, “I see a solution to two problems facing us today. Plastic pollution is a worldwide issue. Another worldwide issue is affordable shelter. This block addresses both of those issues. It takes trash plastic and makes it into an affordable alternative building material.”

Harvey goes on to explain, “One of the things I’m trying to do with the block press is make it like someone would under more difficult circumstances. So I’m using common tools, no fancy machine shop lathes, sheet metal shop presses, etc. I’m also trying to use scrap stuff found around the shop. So far the only thing I’ve purchased for the block press is the three foot by one inch ACME thread rod and nut, $69.00 with shipping.”

Basic facts: The inside width of the press is eight inches, which is also the standard width for a building block made of concrete. Final block size is 8″x8″x16″. Four 12 gauge galvanized wires hold the plastic block together. A simple tool is used to cinch and twist the wire tight while still in the press. Each block weighs six to ten pounds depending on how much plastic and pressure is added. They are difficult to compress or distort. Horizontal wire around each block facilitates attaching plaster mesh. Tied together with wire, and braced with masonry reinforcement and rebar the plastic blocks create a very strong wall ready for plaster inside and out.

Half blocks are used at corners and at window and door openings. Cutting full blocks without losing the integrity of the block is not possible, so half blocks are a necessity. These are made by inserting a half block plug in front of the ram and then applying the same method and pressure as full blocks.

Harvey believes this block can be produced in developing regions under the worst circumstances. In other words, it can work anywhere there’s sufficient plastic waste.

Although most any type of plastic could be used, more valuable grades of plastic (especially #1 and #2) are best recycled so the material can be used again. Number 5, 6 and 7 grade plastic is plentiful, has low value, and seems most appropriate for making plastic blocks. For comparison, today’s spot price is $420.00 a ton for number one and two plastics, $150.00 a ton for three through seven. However, most facilities can’t or won’t process Styrofoams and film plastics like shopping bags. Those are shipped to the landfill.  But they work great in Harvey’s plastic blocks.

The recycled plastic building block is just one factor in what should be a holistic approach to not only recycling but sustainable building as an industry. Plastics that have value as recyclables should be recycled when economically possible. Recycled plastic building blocks aren’t just an answer to housing for the third world. They’re an opportunity for changing the lives of those that build the shelters along with those that live in them. It would be best if it is presented as a new industry providing jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurships.

Recycled plastic blocks are perfect for places such as Haiti, where manufactured building materials are extremely expensive (far higher than the U.S.) and must be imported. Plastic blocks are strong, waterproof, rot proof and insect resistant, all very important qualities in tropical climates. There’s an abundance of plastic trash available in Haiti, free for the taking. Gathering the plastic would help clean up the country and provide jobs. Plastic blocks could be used to create permanent housing that’s designed to fit the local culture and their immediate needs. And with adequate tensile reinforcement, concrete foundation and bond beams, plaster mesh and plaster the structures could be designed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.

Harvey’s not the first person to see the enormous potential of turning trash to cash. Peter Lewis, the original inventor of recycled plastic blocks, is an architect and aerospace engineer in Dunedin, New Zealand. His company, Byfusion Technology, sells industrial machines that clean, chop and press recycled plastic into numerous products, including building blocks.

Peter Lewis has been helpful in sharing his ideas to speed along Harvey’s project. I’ve never met Peter, but I was very glad to see his willingness to help this cause. Peter spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to patent plastic blocks in August 2002, and millions since then to develop industrial scale equipment. The Byfusion machine is manufactured in New Zealand and can be exported in shipping containers. Their mass production techniques are appropriate for many areas of the world, including turning the massive plastic garbage patches in the oceans into useful products. See Great Pacific Garbage Patch for details on the extent of the problem.

 While Byfusion Technology is perfectly suited for certain situations, Harvey’s block making process is taking a decidedly different approach, one best suited for less developed countries where modern materials are not affordable. Harvey’s focus is on simple, low-tech solutions. Virtually anyone with access to plastic trash, no matter how poor, can start generating an income and making blocks for their home with his machine. And even though his plastic blocks aren’t as uniform as Byfusions’, they are certainly adequate for building simple houses.

To work in impoverished areas, the machine has to be low cost, simple to use, easy to make, durable and create a product that can be used by low skilled laborers with a consistent degree of success.

Another interesting aspect Harvey is using is an open source process to help spread his ideas as quickly as possible. Anyone can freely copy and use his press design. Free drawings are now available on his website. All Harvey asks is that if anyone does develop an improved version to please let him know about it so the improvements can be shared with others.

Another goal is to create a cottage industry process that’s similar to the one used to produce compressed earth blocks (CEBs) in many countries. Each village or town could be making plastic blocks where it is not cost effective or practical to send low value plastic trash to big cities for processing.

Harvey‘s goal is to see his machine manufactured and distributed everywhere alternative housing is needed. He also wants to see another model of this machine that is automated for use in the industrialized world. For those who can afford the extra cost, it would not be difficult to modify a log splitting machine to greatly increase output.

At last, there’s a method for 100 percent recycling of plastics. The valuable plastics need to be separated and recycled. The rest of it needs to go into useful products such as building blocks — 100 percent recycling at its best.

Harvey Lacey Wants to Rebuild the (Third) World One Bale of Recycled Plastic at a Time, by Robert Wilonsky, The Dallas Observer Blog

Photos courtesy Harvey Lacey