Building homes out of recycled plastic in Colombia

The company Conceptos Plasticos recycles plastic into construction materials to build homes.
The company Conceptos Plasticos recycles plastic into construction materials to build homes.

The Colombian company Conceptos Plasticos has been turning plastic into construction materials, and building homes with them since 2014. Their approach is both environmentally friendly and socially conscious, aiming to provide housing to the needy, particularly those who have been forced to flee rural areas due to armed conflict.

Based in Bogotá, Conceptos Plasticos was founded by three Colombians in 2010. Initially, their business simply aimed to recycle waste plastic from certain companies, so that the companies could reuse it. The notion of using the recycled plastic to build homes for the needy came later. Oscar Mendez, a 34-year-old architect and one of the co-founders of the company, which currently employs a dozen people, explains.

Conceptos Plasticos began to build this sort of housing two years ago. Video shared by Oscar Mendez.

"The people who are given these homes can build them themselves, after a half-day of training"

We got the idea in 2013, based on two initial observations. At the time, about 35 percent of Colombian families didn't have housing or had insufficient housing. [Editor's note: This statistic comes from the Inter-American Development Bank, but the data vary by source.] It's a particularly serious problem in rural areas, where a large number of inhabitants have been forced to leave their homes because of the fighting. [Editor's note: The war between the armed forces, far-right paramilitary groups and far-left guerrillas, which lasted more than half a century, displaced about 6.9 million people.]

Additionally, 750 tonnes of plastic are thrown in the dump every day in Bogotá, according to the authorities. But only 100 tonnes are recovered by the 'recicladores' [Editor's note: People who sort through the trash, in order to sell what can be sold]. The vast majority of this plastic thus goes to waste, and it pollutes the environment.

We started building housing units in 2014. We buy plastic that was used in industry, but also plastic packaging materials, notably via groups of 'recicladores'.

Plastic packaging materials awaiting recycling. Photo posted to the Facebook page of Conceptos Plasticos.

When the plastic arrives at our factory in Bogotá, we grind it, melt it and pour it into moulds. Then we press it. At this point we add additives, which make the plastic more heat-resistant. Then we plunge the moulds in cold water to produce a thermic shock. Then we take the product out of the moulds.

Plastic arrives at Conceptos Plasticos' factory in Bogotá. Photo sent by Oscar Mendez.

We make eight products, including bricks of different sizes, beams, columns and window frames. They're lighter than the materials that are traditionally used in construction, and they're relatively flexible, so the homes built with them can survive earthquakes.

"In five days, four people can build a 40-square-metre house"

Building the homes is very simple. The bricks stack like Legos – there's no need for any sort of mortar. A half-day of training is all that's needed for people to be able to build their houses themselves. If four people work together, a forty-square-metre house can be built in five days. And it can be taken down in three days, which is useful in the context of forced displacement.

The bricks stack like Legos. Photo published on the website of Conceptos Plasticos.

Our Observer says anyone can do the construction him- or herself, after a half-day of training. Photo sent by Oscar Mendez.


"The building of these homes is cheaper and pollutes less than the building of traditional houses"

We estimate that it costs 10 to 20 percent less to build housing out of recycled plastic than to build 'classical' homes in rural areas, and that doesn't account for the fact that it's less polluting. We use less in the way of materials, the materials are recycled, and we don't need highly skilled workers!

To build and outfit a 40-square-metre house costs us about 6,300 euros. That includes the purchase of the plastic, its recycling, etc. You also have to add between 150 and 900 euros for the transportation of the materials, depending on where the worksite is located.

A 40-square-metre house. Photo sent by Oscar Mendez.

A 40-square-metre house comprises two bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining room and a bathroom, which are all furnished. The roof is not made of plastic, but rather of sheet metal, cement, etc. Floor plan provided by Oscar Mendez.

"We've already built 1,400 square-metres of housing"

In two years, we've recycled 160 tonnes of plastic. We've built six houses in different places across the country, which are inhabited by about 30 people. We've also built three shelters in Guapi, in the department of Cauca (southwest) – an area that was bombed by the army in May 2015 – where about 240 displaced people now live. In total, that comes to about 1,400 square-metres of housing. We also have plans to build ten houses in Cartagena, in the department of Bolívar (northwest).

The shelter in Guapi. Photos sent by Oscar Mendez.

Currently, we can recycle 90 tonnes of plastic each month, which allows for the construction of 15 houses. But we'd like to have the capacity to build 50. We'd also like to work in other countries, and we've already built two houses in Costa Rica, to begin making ourselves known there.

Construction of a house in Costa Rica. Photo posted to the Facebook page of Conceptos Plasticos.

Thus far, our projects have been financed by local businesses, NGOs, foundations, or the public sector, because the people who become the inhabitants of the houses can't fund them themselves. But we'd like to not have to depend on these sources of funding. To do that, we'd have to reduce our costs. One solution would be that the residents of Bogotá sort their garbage and bring us their plastic directly, so that we don't have to buy it anymore. Or we'd have to recycle enough plastic that we'd be left with a surplus that we could sell.

In July, Conceptos Plasticos won "The Venture," a prize for innovative projects.