Fairy tales say ancient alchemists devoted their lives seeking to turn unlikely materials into gold. Now, in modern times, and with the same spirit as the alchemists, a South Florida student is working her magic to turn plastic into housing, beginning in Haiti, her homeland.
For the last six years, budding architect and urban planning student Kestride Estil, 24, has researched ways to improve Haiti’s waste management and affordable housing problems by making construction material out of plastic and debris leftover from the 2010 earthquake, tackling the two complex problems at once.
Haiti, often touted as one of the world’s poorest nations, has yet to fully recover from the historic earthquake that rattled the country in 2010. Estil and her family survived the life-changing natural disaster and moved to South Florida. The experience motivated Estil, who has always had an interest in construction, to improve Haiti’s waste management and affordable housing crises that continually threaten the wellbeing of its citizens.
About 3 million people were affected by the earthquake, according to World Vision, a faith-based humanitarian relief organization working in the country. Roughly 250,000 people died and 300,000 people were injured, the organization reported. As a result, more than 1.5 million Haitians were displaced and forced to live in makeshift internally displaced persons camps.
Because of its location in the tropics, storms and hurricanes continue to exacerbate the already embattled country’s efforts to rebuild.
In October 2016 Category 4 Hurricane Matthew caused massive destruction and displacement, further threatening the citizens of Haiti.
Today, with nearly 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line
Estil subsequently enrolled into Florida Atlantic University’s architecture program and since 2013 has been experimenting with ways to make construction materials out of recyclable materials, such as water bottles. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in urban planning at the university. She is slated to graduate at the end of the fall semester.
Estil grew up in Haiti where she would frequent construction sites with her dad and noticed the country’s waste management problem, she said.
The trash and waste problem in Haiti is an ongoing nightmare for the people living there, with garbage filling the streets, according to the Borgen Project, an American organization advocating to make ending extreme poverty a focus of U.S. foreign policy. Mountains of trash litter the streets because of the lack of proper waste management practices, according to the project. Few landfills and lack of apparent place to dispose of the waste force the garbage to spill out onto the streets. According to the project, the problem peaked in 2012, two years after the earthquake, which prompted the banning of imported plastic products. These products were blocking drains and paths and clogging the streets causing flooding and stagnant water.
“Haiti has a huge waste problem, especially with plastic waste,” she told the Miami Times. “I wanted to see if I could use my resources and research to find a way to turn plastic into housing, which would solve two problems at once: plastic waste and the problem of housing. That’s how it started.”
Her research project, Model Dwelling of Recycled Plastic, aims to find alternative ways to make sturdy construction materials out of items commonly found in trash piles such as water bottles, which litter the streets of Haiti. Her time at Florida Atlantic University has allowed her to dive deep into her research and build brick prototypes to test out her theory of making viable construction material out of recycled plastic.
Estil’s bricks are made by filling up a small-sized water bottle with construction debris, which also liters the Haitian streets as results of the 2010 earthquake. She then stacks them together, binding them together with cement, to make what would essentially be a wall for a house.
After some stress testing, Estil’s mock-up wall proved that her system is sturdy enough to build with and could be used as a dwelling prototype.
In 2017, her project won the university’s Research Award.
Now, as she wraps up her graduate degree in urban planning, Estil hopes to combine her passion for architecture and urban planning to realize her idea of helping Haiti and other countries by turning their plastic waste into housing.
“I am focusing my master thesis, which is in the same direction, on how to manage waste by using plastic in construction in a planning aspect,” she said.
She believes other developing countries can benefit from her method.
“I think it is a technique that can be applied anywhere,” she said. She has found that companies in Colombia, and India, for example, are using similar techniques to increase housing stock and improve the cleanliness of their streets.
“I picked Haiti because this is where I come,” she said.“So far, what I'm seeing, is that it works well for developing countries that have a lot of problems with plastic.”
After graduation, she wants to move beyond the prototype stages of her research and begin constructing houses using her signature method and bricks.
“I want to complete the prototype and get crowdfunding so that I can build with this method in Haiti,” she said.
She believes the people of Haiti will benefit greatly from the cleaning of the streets and the construction of housing that is possible through her method. “I think it will improve their quality of life,” she said.
Estil sees herself as a unique meshing of an entrepreneur, city manager, and designer.
“I think I am all of these things, because I have all of these interests, and I am finding a way to put all of these things together,” she said.