Perhaps the iconic image of developing-world poverty is a small collection of huts with thatched roofs. Unfortunately for those living in such places, these roofs are terrible. They leak and, when water-logged, often collapse. The grasses used to fabricate them are becoming scarcer. Insects and other undesirable critters live in them. People moving out of poverty quickly ditch thatch, upgrading to materials such as corrugated tin.
Corrugated tin roofs are waterproof but have serious downsides. They trap heat, and though a super hot home may be less miserable than getting rained on, it is nevertheless is unpleasant. When it rains, the noise can be so deafening it drowns out everything.
David Saiia, a professor of strategic management and sustainability at Duquesne University, has come up with a brilliant alternative: plastic thatch, sourced from the vast soda-bottle waste stream.
Saiia specializes in developing business solutions that will help people out of poverty while preserving habitats. On one of his many trips taking university students to the Ecuadoran nature preserve, Maqui Picuna, he challenged them to think of something useful to do with all the plastic bottles littering this scenic Andes cloud forest. Saiia’s sculpture, painting, and drawing skills kicked in; shortly a proverbial back-of-the-envelope drawing launched his business transforming bottles into thatch strips. The tops and bottoms are sliced off; the remaining body of the bottle is flattened and then cut into strips. (Saiia and Carnegie Mellon’s Engineers without Borders are now tweaking a human-powered machine to do this work.) Next, the strips are adhered to a cross-strip using ultrasonic sealing machines provided by Dukane. If you’ve ever sliced yourself wrestling with a device encased in clam-shell plastic, you know how effective ultrasonic sealing is.