Since its founding in the early 2000s, Vietnam and Cambodia-based non-profit organisation Mekong Plus has placed utmost priority in improving lives and eliminating poverty through countless projects related to agriculture, infrastructure, health, education and more.
Despite improvements in Vietnam over the last decade, another plague has surfaced.
According to statistics from the World Bank, over 3.1 million tons of plastic waste is dumped recklessly onto land in Vietnam every year, with an estimated 0.5 million more tons entering the seas surrounding the coastal nation—threatening the livelihoods of more than 600,000 fishermen throughout the country.
With Vietnam being one of the major sources of plastic waste in the world today, Mekong Plus has stepped up its game in education.
Regular waste collection drives are conducted at primary and secondary schools of many beneficiary villages—schoolchildren are paid a fair sum for every kilogram of waste they collect. The plastic waste is then extruded into shapes suitable for making classroom tables and chairs in local workshops, eliminating the need to transport waste to far flung production facilities.
Going beyond building tables to building homes
With Mekong Plus volunteers realising the difficulties faced by impoverished families when it comes to building cheap yet durable homes, the non-profit organisation sought the assistance of its local partner NGO Ánh Dương Centre to innovate—turning plastic waste into affordable home-building material.
“[On average,] more than one ton of plastic is recycled when a plastic home is built for a family,” longtime volunteer and team manager at Mekong Plus, Hồ Tiêu Đan, explained.
After about two years of trials with a partner manufacturer in Vietnam’s Bình Dương province, Mekong Plus successfully piloted a corrugated roof panel made of recycled plastic that allows a 20% cost reduction in building a house while sporting the same leak-proof properties.
Mr Nguyễn Văn Tuấn, one of the first beneficiaries to build a plastic home in Vĩnh Trung commune of Hậu Giang province was pleasantly surprised after its completion in early 2021.
The house cost him only VND40,000,000 (US$1700).
“The panels on the sides are much thinner than bricks and our home stays cool during the day,” Mr Tuấn remarks.
“Unlike metal roofs, they are also much quieter when it rains,” he adds, while praising how the patterns of recycled plastic look similar to textured granite.
The construction of these plastic homes begins with the fabrication of a metallic box frame for the main walls of a house and two-sided diagonal purlin-based framing for the roof.
Recycled plastic panels sized 2.4x2m are then attached to the frame using only rivets and waterproof glue—no bricklaying is required, eliminating the use of cement.
The world’s combined use of construction cement is approximately four times more polluting than all internal combustion engine vehicles on earth, and the creation of these homes go beyond simply changing lives of locals in Vietnam and Cambodia—Mekong Plus founding director Bernard Kervyn believes that the technique may be utilised in Europe and many parts of the developed world in the near future.
With the world now facing an energy crisis due to global trends, minimising the reliance on cement will also benefit the environment in similar ways.
Unbeknownst to many, making a ton of cement requires energy equivalent to burning almost 200 kilograms of coal.
Working on flaws and improving design
Despite its initial popularity, Mekong Plus notes the remaining issues that discourage some locals from adopting the radical approach of constructing homes using plastic.
Trần Hoàng Út Diệu from the same commune noticed that repeated expansion and contraction due to extreme weather caused certain glued joints in her plastic home to crack, resulting in water leaking in some corners.
“Luckily, this can be repaired easily and Ánh Dương centre offered us a 10 years warranty on the plastic house!” She exclaimed.
Phan Văn Dân from neighbouring Vĩnh Thuận Đông commune was impressed by the savings and effort to conserve the environment, but felt that the construction process was rather inflexible because of fixed panel sizes.
“It would be better if different sizes of panels can be ordered so we can make do with a cheaper frame!” Dân commented.
With most beneficiaries preferring sticking to brick walls and opting for plastic roof panels, Mekong Plus began a campaign in late 2021 offering greater subsidies for locals who choose to construct homes solely out of recycled plastic panels.
“Instead of a VND12,000,000 subsidy, we provide another VND3,000,000 for every family that completes a home with only plastic,” Tiêu Đan elaborated.
Dân’s brother Phan Văn Trung was ecstatic when his neighbours praised the look of his new plastic home, but became concerned when the panels began to flake due to UV damage from the sun.
“It’s not serious but we choose not to water vegetables with the water [that flows down from the house], only washing clothes!” He explained.
How you can help Mekong Plus
To combat the problem, Mekong Plus plans to mimic Vietnam’s ubiquitous rooftop water tanks and add a UV resistant additive to every plastic panel.
Despite raising the cost of each panel by approximately US$2, Bernard believes that the effort will protect the health of locals and prevent plastics from accumulating in soil.
Nevertheless, suppliers of these panels may need to be convinced first, since the venture is economically prohibitive for Mekong Plus alone. Pledging any sum of contribution to the project will help Mekong Plus go beyond just 20 families that are now living under eco-friendly roofs in Hậu Giang province.
In the meantime, Mekong Plus’ volunteers have come up with a quick solution. Putting a farming net on top of roofs effectively kills two birds with a single stone—protecting plastic panels from UV rays while keeping rural plastic houses cool during summertime.
“We plan to have at least one ‘demo’ home in every village!” Bernard said, with determination.