Building Blocks

When, as a student of industrial design at Rhode Island School of Design, Roberta Wright was asked to conceive a profitable industry using waste from the local landfill, she uncovered a pattern in the messy heap. Plastics account for almost ten percent of the waste stream and construction debris nearly 50 percent, the vast majority of the latter coming from deconstruction and remodeling. Recycling plastics into reusable building components, she estimated, could potentially reduce construction debris by 75 percent. “It creates a cycle of reuse,” Wright says.

Her design, a kit of parts featuring a Lego-like brick, would be made of an immiscible polymer developed at Rutgers University, a combination of high-density polyethylene—a strong plastic used for motor oil and milk bottles—and polystyrene, the brittle stuff of CD covers and disposable cups. The superstrong polymer is rigid and sturdy enough for structural applications.

“Now that there are compostable bioplastics that can be used to make detergent bottles, something needs to be done with the plastics we already have,” Wright says. “When you deconstruct a house, a lot of the bricks still have mortar stuck to them and can’t be reused. These polymer bricks could be since they are connected by a joint, not mortar. The material lasts basically forever.”

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