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A youth walks through ankle-deep trash in Haiti.

A Haitian child wades through trash in the Shada neighborhood of Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city.

To learn more about the EWB project to recycle some of that trash, watch a University of Minnesota video.

Hope for Haiti

U chapter of Engineers Without Borders strives to make a difference

Less than 700 miles from Miami lies the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti. Sewage runs in the streets, most people live in abject poverty, and the government is nearly totally dysfunctional.

The people of Haiti are trying to help their country, and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) lend a hand to feed, clothe, and educate Haitians, as well as work to prevent or reverse environmental damage. One such organization is called SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods); in fall 2007, the University of Minnesota chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) invited SOIL to come talk about its work to bring environmentally responsible sanitation to Haiti's poor.

Throughout the presentation, chapter members noticed the huge amount of empty plastic sachets, much like sturdy plastic bags, littering the streets ankle deep in the Shada neighborhood of Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest city. These sachets, made of high-density polyethelene (HDPE), are used to carry drinking water. "[In the video] we also saw numerous images of shoeless children walking through this plastic waste, many with sores on their feet," says EWB chapter president Brian Bell. That vision, coupled with SOIL's need to find a replacement for the high-priced specialty molds for their cement toilets, led to Bell having what he calls his "aha" moment.

"We have some of the world's brightest minds in materials research right here at the University of Minnesota," says David Gasperino. "I was drawn to this project because of its focus on using the research expertise we have to help make a difference in another country."

"I knew we could think of a way to get ... the plastic waste off of the ground while simultaneously addressing the need for affordable footwear for children and plastic toilet molds for SOIL," says Bell. "We could collect HDPE sachets from the ground, clean and sort them, and then re-melt and re-mold the plastic into shoes and toilet molds. A week after the presentation we had two teams of students working on this project."

Bell submitted the project to KEEN Footwear's "STAND up/out/for" contest, which gives $25,000 to individuals or teams who are promoting environmentally sustainable practices. The U's EWB chapter won, and the $25,000 will help get the project moving.

"We have some of the world's brightest minds in materials research right here at the University of Minnesota," says David Gasperino, a U of M chemical engineering Ph.D. graduate who now is serving as a professional mentor on the venture. "I was drawn to this project because of its focus on using the research expertise we have to help make a difference in another country."

The group's original idea of recycling the plastic into footwear for Haiti's children was great, but recent research by chemical engineering students in the group found that if plastic waste were melted and reused, the material would be too stiff for shoe soles. So in addition to the affordable toilet molds, the plastic will be recycled into sporting equipment for youths.

Also, beyond addressing the needs of waste disposal and sanitation, the students hope to help local Haitians find a way to transform the pervasive plastic waste into a profitable recycling enterprise for themselves.

"Small ideas turn into a big difference in many of these types of projects. If we develop a use for the plastic, there will be a financial incentive to clean up and sell it to be recycled," Bell says. "This means people there could start a business and earn money to support their families."

For more information about the Haiti endeavor, visit the University of Minnesota Engineers Without Borders Web site.