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Sustainable shelters

Recycled shelter provides eco-friendly refuge for those fleeing disaster zones
A long line of people wait to board a train to Poland in Lviv, Ukraine

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 the plastic waste mountain.

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.

Flat-packed shelter

Meeting all UNHCR requirements, 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 to provide much-needed security, and the shelters can also be adapted to form mobile medical units.

Tackling waste

Each shelter is made from 460kg of waste plastic; if the units were to replace 1% 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).

‘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.’

Director of Engineering Sustainability at Birmingham Centre for Resilience Research and Education

Mr 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.

The recycled shelter for refugees

Demand for shelters

According to UNHCR, 32.5 million of the 103 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, are refugees.

While 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 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 camps exist far longer.

Problems with current shelters

While tents made from textile or plastic sheets are the simplest and frequently supplied form of shelter in post disaster areas, serious problems remain.

There is a shortage of adequate shelters, plus problems with the storage of tents due to costs and durability.

Tents also have a short lifespan and are uncomfortable, with limited head height. They also lack security for the vulnerable.
To appropriately respond to disaster victims’ urgent needs, traditional temporary accommodation requires improvements in providing security and sanitation for those occupying the spaces, as well as better accessibility, privacy and living comfort.

‘We’re very excited about the future of the shelters. Discussions at DIHAD have underlined the need for innovative, sustainable shelters. We’ve found that the shelters can also be adapted to provide mobile medical units. Our partnership with the University has been critical in getting this far, and we look forward to building on this in the future.’

Director of Suscons

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