Can These Lego-Like Bricks Alleviate Homelessness and Plastic Pollution?

Plasticos Bricks BELatina
Photo IG @portalsostenible

That old saying about necessity is the mother of invention certainly rings true in places around Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where the availability of natural resources and skilled labor outweighs the presence of pre-assembled solutions and convenience. But the exploitation of those resources, industrialization, natural disasters, climate change, and other complex structural and social drivers has led to the extreme marginalization of portions of the population, especially in the developing world. As the Amazon forest burns, its wisdom and wealth evaporating into smoke, people are driven from their homes into a vast unknown.

Shelter is a necessity for any animal, from an insect in her hive to us, the most developed of the animals, crawling further from a state of housing equality. Homelessness is an issue in countries that are considered wealthy, places like the United States and the United Kingdom, with staggering numbers of people living on the streets in cities like New York, London, and Los Angeles. 

Even more worrisome is that, due to the diverse and complex issues that prevent people from affording housing — such as inadequate access to care for mental illness, substance dependence, and poverty — the numbers of people in developed countries is growing proportionally to the widening wealth gap. With 1 in every 13 adults in England reporting that they have slept on the street at some time in their life, the problem is certainly significant. Moreover, while we know there is a close relationship between poverty and homelessness, we don’t fully understand how to stop the cycle.

It isn’t simple to quantify the severity of the problem of homelessness, as the term itself is subject to some further clarification. Those who study homelessness often distinguish literal homelessness, such as sleeping on the sidewalk (sometimes called “rough sleeping”), in parks, abandoned buildings, or at shelters, and so-called precarious housing. The latter includes staying with friends or relatives, while literal homelessness is further differentiated between the sheltered and unsheltered or “roofless” life. Each of these situations presents a unique set of challenges and dangers to the person who lives with only her necessities and no fulfillment. 

Homelessness manifests in even more ways in the developing world, where poverty is even more prevalent than in wealthier countries and where structural and social drivers (such as the migration of largely agricultural peoples to urban settings) perpetuate generations of nomadic life. This is where the invention comes in: the citizens of Manila, Philippines, or New Delhi gather whatever materials they can find, and build themselves ramshackle buildings, no longer out of harvested wood or natural fibers, but the discarded items of the well-housed. And while these behemoth neighborhoods house an excess of people, satisfying the need for a roof in the most basic of ways, they can also be dangerously unsafe, unhygienic, an unreasonable way to house people.

These cities — favelas in Rio, tugurios in Bogotá — build something out of nothing, repurposing other people’s trash into inadequate and inhuman homes. Makeshift towns try to compensate for everything the government has been unable to provide, but they do little to distract from the desperate need for adequate and affordable housing. People living in poverty around the world have shown remarkable levels of resilience and resourcefulness in creating homes for themselves or surviving the lack of anything resembling a house, but trash and subpar materials are not suitable alternatives to homelessness and must be considered a serious and real type of housing inequality. 

Slums are inordinately vulnerable to fires, which can spread rapidly and claim many lives and all of the low-quality building materials. They are disconnected from public services to which each citizen should be entitled; they are marginally beneficial to their inhabitants, as they can be rife with crime and danger, unsanitary, and insufficient. Expert reports conducted by the United Nations recognize the immediate need for better housing for street dwellers, though they still consider the shanty towns of places like Guatemala and Panamá a condition needing attention and assistance. 

In fact, it seems as if the number one solution to the problem, finding good quality and affordable ways to build low-income housing, has been elusive, and not exclusively so in the developing world. By and large, says the urban planner tasked with studying the phenomenon, attempts to build low-income housing often result in projects worldwide that are “at the wrong price, in the wrong places, to the wrong design, and for the wrong reasons and too often ends up occupied by the wrong groups, or not at all.” 

Government intervention has not shown itself to be particularly effective in tackling the problem. More and more city slums continue to appear — and thrive — in places like Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia. Since Latin American cities foster the emergence of slum-like neighborhoods, squatting, and rampant evictions, so too are they breeding grounds for finding solutions to homelessness, one of the largest promoters of social inequality. To tackle housing inequality is to confront the various factors — social, economic, political — by proxy.  

The deep divide between the haves (the upper, middle, and working classes) and the have-nots (the homeless, the desplazados, the evicted, the indigent) has created a need for international organizations like TECHO. TECHO’s mission is to build roofs over people’s heads, providing low-income housing, the kind that the UN has observed is scarce in the developing world, and which TECHO’s own Luis Bonilla insists helps perpetuate the class divide

The housing market’s inability to provide something to these populations, he elaborates, contributes to segregation and the marginalized approach to urban planning. Not only must we provide every person shelter, we need to ensure that these shelters are adequately connected to city and state services, such as aqueduct, transportation, medical care, and education.

There are other differences between homelessness in the developing world and in the developed one. In wealthy countries, we find that more men tend to live on the streets, much like in Islamic countries, where women’s vulnerability encourages staying with relatives. In Latin America, though, many more women and children end up on the streets, whether after migration or simply in search of livelihood.

TECHO is one of the sources of housing solutions for Latin Americans most affected by homelessness. Endowed by donations and volunteership, TECHO sets out to provide shelter, education, and training, as well as community projects, all in favor of greater housing equality.  Working hard in places like Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, TECHO sometimes facilitates better housing by “upgrading” existing slums, bringing ad hoc constructions up to code, enhancing them, and making them functional and durable. 

Bogotá is one of the key examples in the urban planning report delivered to the U.N. committee. Since the homelessness crisis grew so widespread as a result of poverty, unemployment, and the dramatic violence of the 1980s and 90s, which drove people from their rural lives into the capital, vulnerable to the different violence there, Colombia’s capital has been exemplary in finding diverse avenues to solve the homelessness epidemic. Unifying shacks into communities and, essentially, towns, has demonstrated the people’s willingness to improve their situation and eke out a life from the direst circumstances.

The next step in urban planning solutions and innovation also seems to be coming out of Colombia, as a musician, Fernando Llanos, was looking to live in a relatively inaccessible part of town. He teamed up with an architect by the name of Oscar Mendez, who was aware not only of Llanos’s need, but the drastic housing shortage in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, which he calculated at around 40% of the overall population

The problematic figure inspired Mendez’s architectural thesis: the creation of a recycled material that is otherwise wasted and not biodegradable to cast modular, lightweight, easy-to-assemble bricks. Mendez made giant LEGO-like bricks and people can build life-size houses out of them. His idea, to use discarded and non-biodegradable plastic that would otherwise end up in a landfill to create these affordable, movable construction materials, addresses the economic problem of homelessness as much as the ecological problem of waste and the by-products of bustling urban existence.  

Conceptos Plasticos recycled brick building

Mendez has recently completed about 100 single-family homes in a low-income neighborhood, made out of 650 tons of plastic salvaged from the city dump. The most LEGO-like aspect of these homes is evident in the model. Not only do the houses fulfill the needs of an average-sized family, with two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room, and dining room, the home can be assembled in 5 days by only 4 people, none of whom need prior experience. This sounds more accessible than some of the IKEA pieces I have suffered through.

Most impressively, the portability of these bricks actually addresses a decades-old problem of desplazados in Colombia, people who have to move to avoid vigilante violence, legal repercussions, and other dangers. Whether it’s the internal political unrest or the continuous migration from Venezuela into Colombia, or a combination of these two, the possibility of disassembling ones house if forced to move or evicted, transporting it, and rebuilding it elsewhere, helps to break the cycle of perpetual homelessness.

Mendez’s creation may not be free, but it is reasonably priced at around $130 per square meter. This adds up to around $5200 for a standard 40 square meter home. The click-in modularity of the recycled plastic bricks makes for one-step assembly and keeps costs low. In the presence of bricks that snap together, no adhesive, grout, or cement are necessary, keeping the materials list to a single one. 

Llanos’s commission and Mendez’s response have now become a Bogotá-based company producing these recycled, practical, low-cost bricks. As it loads, a counter on their homepage ticks off the number, in millions, of wasted plastic and families in need of homes in Colombia. Just as the absurdly high numbers begin to boggle the mind, the company lists off the various products and innovations that have already resulted from considering those same figures side-by-side.

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I will be clearly dating myself when I reminisce about one of the television heroes of my time: the ever-resourceful, hot engineering nerd MacGyver. MacGyver could solve any problem with a shoelace, a forgotten roll of duct tape, the lighter everyone in the 1980s carried in their pocket and some chewed-up bubble gum. It went something like that. His reliance on his own ingenuity and the materials he found lying around rather than the traditional, pre-fabricated tools of other fictional characters, inspired audiences to turn him, a proper noun, into a verb.

The king of resourcefulness would be the first to agree that necessity precedes invention, and the sooner that invention comes, the quicker human suffering is alleviated. Homelessness is a serious and dramatic problem in developing countries on three continents and in a few wealthy nations as well. It is time we MacGyver ourselves out of this global epidemic and start building everyone a home (especially while reusing plastic waste), one brick at a time.