Engineering group wins national award

Engineers Without Borders beat out 321 other applicants from across the country.

by Betsy Graca

Images of small children running through trash-filled streets without footwear permeate an application video made by the University chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Their proposal for a Haiti water sachet plastic recycling project beat out 321 other applicants from across the country as part of KEEN Footwear’s STAND competition earlier this month – netting the EWB-UMN chapter $25,000 in the process.

The idea behind the project was to take plastic waste in a Haitian community and make it “useable,” specifically by turning it into sanitary toilet molds, footwear and athletic equipment for children.

The plastic, high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, is used in Haiti for sachets to transport water, but is often discarded after only one use.

Becky Chambers, marketing manager for KEEN, said one of the company’s core values is sustainability and the company wanted to recognize projects supporting the issue.

“We were really impressed with the passion and the innovation behind (EWB-UMN)’s project,” she said. “It really stood out.”

Brian Bell, president of EWB-UMN, said an organization, Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods, presented the project to the group.

“(The students) saw some photos of kids without shoes and plastic trash and they said, ‘Oh, I wonder if we can do something about that,’ ” Julian Marshall, the group’s advisor, said.

From a chemical engineering and material science standpoint, Marshall said it’s a very challenging issue to turn waste plastics into something useful.

The engineers found the converted HDPE plastic might be a little too hard and brittle for footwear, but Bell said the group is still hoping to develop a method to create the sandals by combining different plastics in the future.

David Gasperino, mentor to the group, said experiments on the project will begin next week.

He said the process includes collecting the plastic, cleaning it, sorting it, shredding it, melting it, molding it, then cooling it before it’s ready for use.

Gasperino said the overall goal is to find a way to recycle on a smaller scale and in a safe manner for poor communities.

“There’s no current recycling program and no future plans in Haiti and other countries,” he said.

EWB-UMN initiated the project last fall and plans their visit to Haiti in a few months. However, the state department recently established a travel advisory to Haiti due to uprisings regarding food shortages.

EWB has four current projects in Uganda, Ghana, Guatemala and Haiti. In addition to the plastic project, the group is working on an indoor sanitation project in Haiti.

The group has completed projects in Ghana and Guatemala.

Bell said one of the most critical aspects of the projects is finding funding.

When the group is winning national competitions, it receives funding from companies and organizations around the city as well as the Institute of Technology.

Gasperino said the financial award from KEEN allows the group to focus more on the actual work and less on the fundraising.