Plastic could play a crucial role in situations when natural disasters occur, a group of students at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York has revealed.

Earthquakes and hurricanes take place in several areas in the US, causing havoc and leaving victims trapped for long with no food or shelter. This was the starting point for students at the Institute’s School of Engineering and Architecture, who are working on a project that aims at re-using empty plastic bottles to build prototype emergency shelters for populations in conditions of distress.

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The group is testing different structural components and will then design and build the shelter on the Institute’s campus.

Assistant professor of architecture Lydia Kallipoliti is one of the leaders of the team, which set up a design studio aimed at sparking debate on the recycling of industrial products.

“During the design studio, we are investigating several prototypes presenting variable solutions of construction and deconstruction of small inhabitable spaces using the bottles manufactured by Friendship,” said Kallipoliti.

The plan is to use plastic bottles provided by US-based company Friendship Products as low-cost, easily assembled building blocks and build strong walls and structures. The bottles can interlock without joints due to their embedded creases.

School of Engineering and Architecture assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Mohammed Alnaggar said: “This project presents a unique collaboration to optimise function and shape. The structural engineering research focusing on studying all the mechanics of the interlocking between the bottles and it’s scaling up to the full structural scale provides the architectural engineers with the needed properties to create not only an aesthetically appealing structure but also a structurally sound and safe one.”

Alnaggar explained that his project wants to give extra life to plastic bottles that would otherwise end up in landfills by making them parts of a building, saying that his team is studying the strength and thermal insulation properties of the material in order to incorporate it into walls.

“We are taking the bottles from our landfills and putting them sustainably into our structures to reduce weight and provide insulation for a better energy consumption,” said Alnaggar.