Tens of thousands of poverty-stricken people in poor countries scrounge from rubbish dumps to stay alive.
UWA's Professor of Engineering Education Caroline Baillie and her collaborators and supporters around the world are working to help these people make a living, while educating future engineers about using waste products.
Winthrop Professor Baillie set up Waste for Life in 2006. The project is operating in Africa and South America and the group hopes to extend it to Indonesia soon. The work is supported by universities in Argentina, Canada, Italy, UK UA and now Australia.
Last month Professor Baillie launched Waste for Life UWA.
"It's loosely-joined network of scientists, engineers, educators, architects, designers and co-operatives who work together to develop poverty-reducing solutions to specific ecological problems," Professor Baillie said.
"Our twin goals are to reduce the damaging environmental impact of non-recycled plastic waste products and to promote self-sufficiency and economic security for at-risk populations who depend upon waste to survive."
The group has developed simple technology to turn waste plastic (mainly discarded plastic bags) and whatever natural fibres are available in the area into composite materials for use in domestic products and building materials.
Professor Baillie is an expert in natural fibre composites, working on them for 11 years before she established Waste for Life. She has published the first major book in the field, Green Composites.
Waste for Life projects will soon be producing watchbands and wallets from waste materials in Buenos Aires and ceiling tiles from waste in Lesotho.
Professor Baillie, who describes herself as having an overdeveloped social conscience, has been using her knowledge for social good for many years. Waste for Life is just one of her projects.
She said she had seen thousands of people living on a rubbish dump in a suburb of Cairo, recycling the city's waste.
"A family might have a little machine to, say, melt plastic bottles into pellets, and they would sell them to somebody who needed them to make a product," she said. "It was inspiring.
"Later, in Buenos Aires, I saw the so-called cartoneros or cardboard pickers: up to 20,000 people making a living from the city's rubbish dumps by recycling waste. And it all fell into place."
Waste for Life was ‘born' in Lesotho four years ago, where the group designed and built a low-cost hot press so the local people could use it to combine the fibre from agave plants with waste plastic bags to make insulating ceiling tiles.
"They were harvesting the agave plants for their gel and the fibre from the plant was waste," Professor Baillie explained. "The people in Lesotho are very poor and they live in huts without ceilings, which are very hot. Now they can make ceilings out of insulating tiles to make their lives more comfortable."
The low-cost industry will tick all the boxes for Waste for Life: it will provide a livelihood for poverty-stricken people, it will reduce environmentally-damaging plastic waste and the project will be an example for students of where engineering can make a difference in the global community.
A hot press, designed by one of Professor Baillie's Canadian colleagues, Darko Matovic, has been adapted and built in the workshops of the Faculty of Engineering Computing and Mathematics by senior technician Derek Goad. It may be used in Bali.
Waste for Life co-ordinator Eric Feinblatt is negotiating with a friend who lives in a tiny village in Bali where plastic waste is killing animals and frustrating tourism.
Professor Baillie, Mr Feinblatt and others are in the early stages of exploring a local Waste for Life project in the Balinese village, where they hope to be able to use coconut oil to power the hot press.
"I'm also in talks with a group called Habitat for Humanity, with Associate Professor Philip Bay from Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts," Professor Baillie said. "We're hoping to take Waste for Life into some Indigenous communities."
Professor Baillie hopes to develop a community service unit which would fit in with New Courses 2012. "I see the unit involving high school students in an outreach program and incorporating Waste for Life and Engineers without Borders," she said.
"Waste for Life combines research, teaching and community service. I'm looking forward to taking students with me to some of our projects so they can see what good they can do with their engineering skills."
Published in UWA News, 26 July 2010