This refugee shelter is made from 460 kilos of recycled plastic

Refugees fleeing disaster zones could soon be living in temporary shelters made from 100% recycled materials, which will not only prove safer and more durable than tents but also help to reduce plastic waste.

University of Birmingham sustainable engineering experts in the School of Engineering have worked with Birmingham-based company Suscons over the last 18 months to develop a new type of emergency relief shelter (ERS) – the Suscons ERS Transitional Shelter.

The Suscons ERS Transitional Shelter is made from 460 kg of recycled waste.

Meeting all requirements of the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), the four-person shelter is delivered as a flat-pack in standard ISO freight containers. It can be quickly erected by unskilled labour – providing emergency shelter as well as longer-term temporary accommodation, with a minimum lifespan of 10 years continual use.

Doors and windows are lockable, providing much-needed security, and the shelters can also be adapted to form mobile medical units.

Diverting plastic

Each shelter is made from 460kg of waste plastic and if the units were to replace one percent of the shelter market – estimated to be six million shelters per year – that would be 42,000 units taking over 19,000 tonnes of waste plastic out of the waste stream each year

“We’ve had very positive discussions about the shelter with several relief agencies, including UNHCR and UNICEF, and received a great deal of interest when we showed the shelter at this year’s Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development (DIHAD),” said Peter Braithwaite, director of engineering sustainability at the Birmingham Centre for Resilience Research and Education.

“This is high-quality emergency shelter for immediate relief which can become a transitional shelter with the addition of a sanitary/kitchen module – durable, safe accommodation delivered in a flat pack, easily erected with minimal tools. After use, the shelters can be shredded and turned into new products, with no waste generated.”

Reduced lifecycle costs

Braithwaite added that while the ERS is more expensive than a tent, it was hoped that a new innovative model of selling, or leasing, the shelters based on whole life costs would encourage relief agencies to start using the shelters in disaster zones.

According to UNHCR, 32.5 million of the 103 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, are refugees. Although the need for emergency relief shelters has increased by at least 5.4 million due to the conflict in Ukraine, demand remains considerable from other countries suffering conflicts and disasters such as Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

A large percentage of refugees end up in UNHCR tents, which are designed for an 18-month life but inevitably are used far longer. While tents made from textile or plastic sheets are the simplest and frequently supplied form of shelter in post disaster areas, serious problems remain. They do not provide secure accommodations, they have a short lifespan, they are uncomfortable and have low head-room.