Garbage in, houses out: Youth turning plastic into big bricks
Solve homelessness and the plastic trash problem in one go? It's the kind of audacious intersectionality that people might get excited about.
Charlie Abrams is a Cleveland High senior already known for having been a climate advocate since fourth grade. He was one of the organizers of the Climate Strike downtown in 2019. Now he's sunk his teeth into something less abstract. Abrams started a nonprofit in 2020 called Recycled Living to make 20-pound building bricks out of compressed waste plastic and build tiny homes for the homeless. While there are a lot of questions — Recycled Living is still at the fundraigin stage and has a GoFundMe to take it to the next level — there are some fascinating details to Abrams' story.
The 17-year-old is known in Salem and Portland as a climate activist. He and his schoolmate Jeremy Clark were the primary movers of the Climate Strike that saw thousands of kids ditch class to head downtown on Sept. 20, 2019. While working on climate action and carbon pricing policy, he has obtained an inside look at the contentious world of carbon credits, foresters, and politicians. But in 2020, he used the long days stuck at home during the pandemic to tackle an idea he had two years before: Why not build tiny houses out of waste plastic?
Abrams has had a side hustle for three years as a skilled animator, making music videos on Blendr. He won an honorable mention from the nonprofit The River Starts Here in July 2020 for his video Walking With Trash (For 26 seconds, a pair of Vans walks over some litter on a riverbank.) He taught himself architectural rendering on Blendr software and designed a series of tiny homes that were more than just the shed-on-a-pallet model so often chosen by local authorities. He cites the city of Los Angeles building eight-by-eight-foot cabins with no amenities and just a bed and a chair as the opposite of what he wants to do.
"Do we want to create a project where the community looks like a set of boxes with 64 padlocks on them?" Abrams told the Business Tribune on a recent afternoon in the Pearl District. "We could create something beautiful within this community. They're not 64-square-foot boxes. It's creating something real that someone would want to live in."
Abrams also built the three machines needed to turn plastic into bricks: The shredder, the heater, and the compressor. The shredder is laser cut from steel and assembled from a kit designed in Poland. The other two machines he designed himself. Again, he taught himself the engineering required to build all three. Rather than buy off the rack, they had to be custom-made to make the large bricks he wanted. One day he will need a larger shredder, though.
"When this is a larger nonprofit, we will be buying industrial shredders instead of building them from scratch. It will be a lot smoother of a process going forward when we have more established funding," he said.
Regular recycling only handles a few kinds of plastic. Abrams' aim is more about keeping plastics out of the landfill and is almost omnivorous when it comes to plastic. His machine can take anything from hard plastic crates to thin plastic bags. (They avoid PVC because of the harmful chemicals like hydrochloric acid, which it releases at high temperatures.) So far, they have used mostly low-density polyethylene and some higher-density polyethylene (HDPE). Once shredded into flakes and mixed, they can be warmed to about 110 degrees in the heating chamber, softened and pressed into a steel form. The result is a plastic brick with two holes to allow for rebar to hold them together when laid.
Abrams rented a warehouse in Northwest Portland, but he says the machines, and the test bricks he made, are in storage currently, awaiting funding for a larger warehouse.
The plastic being used is not coming from the recycle stream that Portlanders are familiar with. Rather than going after the mountains of single-use plastic that consumers sort through, such as the food containers with the Mobius loop or chasings arrow symbol on them, Recycled Living collects from a bigger and yet less well-known source. They are striking deals with businesses to take some of their surplus plastic. One company is the Traffic Safety Supply Company, which makes street signs. The ends of the steel poles come with a hard plastic plug, which is usually discarded at the landfill. Recycled Living takes them for the shredding pile. Recycled Living also works with grocery stores, which are now receiving produce in plastic boxes. These boxes look like white cardboard but can't be recycled.
Recycled Living is also working with PacSun, a trendy clothing company.
"Each T-shirt that they have is wrapped like four times in different amounts of plastic bags," Abrams said.
The plastic quickly built up.
"It is hard to express how much plastic our society uses through large companies," Abrams said. "The idea is to recycle plastic that is headed to the landfill. So, with our partnerships through companies who have no other option, we're creating a solution." Abrams also mentions pallets of food that arrive at grocery stores wrapped 20 or 30 times in a type of industrial-strength saran wrap. "This plastic that has an adhesive on it, that's super thin and elastic, can't be recycled by our traditional recycling system. And it is an absurd amount of plastic. We were able to take that."
Engineering the bricks
Abrams did the CGI (computer-generated imagery) for the architecture and said the engineering for the bricks was not complicated. He hasn't sought official approval from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for his building materials because the buildings are too small.
It takes a few hours to make a brick. According to Abrams, the project's next phase will be to create an autonomous system so that no manual labor is required for moving the mold to the separate machines.
Abrams says the $20,000 they are trying to raise will be enough to get construction started on land donated by the City of Portland — a deal which he says is likely. He will get appliances donated and buy the other building materials.
"When you take out the cost of the actual structure of the home and you're left with things like drywall and insulation, all of that, the cost depreciates so quickly. Rebar, insulation — this stuff is insanely cheap when you're looking at it on a large scale compared to what the actual home is made out of, which is now free."
He repeats, "I've grown up here my entire life. I've seen how homelessness, plastic pollution, how they've gone from issues in our city to crises. Those are things that I want to solve. My parents live here. I expect to continue living here. I don't want to grow up in a city that has to deal with this. Our plan is to expand because of how revolutionary this idea is. It can work really well in other countries across the globe. But I do want to start it here in Portland. This is where I'm from, and it's a city that really needs a solution like this."
Just as tent camps move people around to little effect, so plastic is endlessly deferred. He wants to stop both.
"Plastic pollution is an extremely multifaceted issue. If we are cleaning up the ocean, and recycling that plastic, where's that plastic going if it can't be recycled by a recycling system? As opposed to just shifting it from one location to another."
Recycled Living's GoFundMe https://www.gofundme.com/f/recycled-living
Reporter, The Business Tribune