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Waste for Life: Making Trash Useful

One of the greatest challenges and sources of opportunity for modern engineers is thinking up ways to repurpose the waste material that pervades our planet. Many organizations are already finding clever ways to tackle this issue. For example, every year the PBS show Design Squad holds a “Trash to Treasure” competition, which challenges students to design something useful produced from waste materials. Now meet Waste for Life, a non-profit coalition of students, designers, and engineers who are working in Argentina and Lesotho to upcycle waste into usable materials:YouTube Preview Image

In developing nations, trash can be a valuable source of income for the world’s poor. When materials engineer Caroline Baillie visited Argentina in 2007, she was struck by the large number of “cartoneros,”: impoverished citizens scavenging the streets for glass, plastic, and cardboard to sell to recycling centers. To help these people raise their income, Baillie and her team devised a system that would allow them to manufacture new materials from waste more effectively.

Here’s how it works:

The cartoneros’ plastic waste is combined with local fibers (often waste paper or cardboard), melted and pressed to form a composite material, then reshaped using an inexpensive hot press designed by Queens University engineers, upgraded by University of Western Australia engineers, and produced locally in Argentina. The result is cost-effective building materials and products that can be sold or used in the cartoneros’ homes. The whole process not only reuses and reduces garbage, but also gives the nation’s poorest residents a more reliable source of income.


Recently, students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) have teamed up with Waste for Life to design beautiful products from garbage-based material. In addition, the students are working on improvements to the hot press, and some may even have the opportunity to travel to Buenos Aires next year. Below are a few examples some useful items RISD students have dreamed up:

Metro Bag designed and created by Stephanie Retz at RISD for Waste for Life
(photo: Mark Johnston)

Watch Band designed and created by Erin Knowlton at RISD for Waste for Life (photo: Mark Johnston)

Wallet designed and created by Robert Wells at RISD for Waste for Life

Cartonero BackFlip Chair designed and created by Mut-Architecture for Waste for Life and the OneGoodChair design competition

For a closer look at the innovative hot press that turns garbage into useful materials, see this video.


paul bridgewater/Flickr

3 Responses to “Waste for Life: Making Trash Useful”

  1. […] Education (ASEE), has just published a story about our collaboration with RISD. Take a look. « Previous […]

  2. Hey axb, Thanks for the great shoutout on WFL’s latest designs and activities! The WFL BsAs team is now busy planning for November 2010, when we’ll take things to the next level in Buenos Aires with selecting and training the cartoneros to make the beautiful products the RISD students have designed, and making the first prototypes. For all the latest information, follow us on twitter WFL_BuenosAires or find us on facebook – Waste for Life – Basura Por Vida – Buenos Aires!

  3. Very cool and majorly useful. Two questions: 1. any plans for what happens to the manufactured items once THEY get thrown out? eg. a take-back initiative, whereby the buyers can bring back their stuff and the cartoneros can recycle it into something else.
    2. Why don’t we do this in Canada? Plenty of homeless and poverty-level folk up here, too. Why only export our goodness and know-how. Let’s use some of it up, up here. I know a woman with a steel rod in her spine (had a tumor on her spine removed, but operation paralyzed her), can’t work much, tries to live off disability payments (which, in case you’ve never tried it is impossible here in Ontario : hmm…just paid the rent. …so….let’s see, shall I buy toilet paper or bread today..?..can’t afford em both ….)
    So maybe she could make wallets for a few hours a week in her apartment, and actually earn a bit extra. Or be part of a co-operative, like Arches, where she makes part of that fancy chair. Make her life a little easier. Whaddya say? We got plenty of smart engineering students left over, even if a few of you Queen’s University guys are taken by this project. Kudos guys, you are making a difference in the world.

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