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Innovative Plant-Based Plastic Builds Safe Shelters for Refugees

The BTTR Board, made of plant-based jute, is a revolutionary solution for creating safe, dignified shelters for refugees facing displacement due to war, persecution, and the climate crisis.


In 2021, an estimated 89.3 million people were forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution, and other human rights abuses. And with the looming threat of the climate crisis, that number could rise to more than one billion by 2050. This means that millions of people will need shelter in the aftermath of disasters, invasions, and other crises, but where will they go?


One solution to this global crisis comes from an innovative bioplastics startup based in Austin, Texas, and a Bangladeshi scientist. Together, they have developed a plant-based plastic that can be used to construct stable, dignified shelters for refugees, using a plant called jute.


The Jute being woven.

Applied Bioplastics is the company behind the plant-based building blocks called BTTR Board, which is used to construct the homes. The company's CEO, Alex Blum, is determined to make his product the "transitionary housing of choice globally."


Jute, which has been harvested in Bangladesh since ancient times, was once a major international export from the subcontinent. However, the emergence of petrochemical alternatives to jute-woven burlap bags destroyed the demand for jute, leaving the plant without much use. But around 25 years ago, Dr. Mubarak Ahmed Khan, a Bangladeshi scientist and former nuclear physicist, thought of another use for the fiber: transform it into a building material for temporary shelters.



In 2017, Blum met with Khan in Bangladesh and bought the idea from him. He then hired Khan as Applied Bioplastics' chief scientist in Bangladesh to help make the idea a reality.


The homes are made by first weaving jute into burlap, then layering it on top of a tin base covered with a Mylar film. The material is then treated with a proprietary chemical mixture that is non-toxic and food-safe. Afterward, the board is painted with thermoset resin and placed in a mold weighed down with bricks. The whole process takes about 45 minutes, and then the board is left to dry for an hour. The result is a durable and waterproof wall that is a step up from the tarpaulin structures that most refugees living in Cox's Bazar currently call home.


The shelters are designed to be low-tech and doable by hand, but a heat press can be used to speed up the process. The cost of both labor and materials is around $1,000 for a house that measures 14 square meters (approximately 151 square feet) and 2.6 meters (approximately 8.5 feet) tall. And the results are impressive: refugees who have moved into these homes report better health outcomes, better dignity, and overall happiness. The homes have even withstood typhoons without any piece of the structure blowing away or injuring inhabitants.


Since January 2022, Applied Bioplastics has partnered with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) and Catholic charity Caritas to launch a pilot program with six BTTR Board houses hosting six families. The pilot has been successful, and the families are welcome to continue using the homes. Various aid organizations including the UN may choose to purchase more homes due to the success of the pilot program.


Eventually, Blum hopes to license the process to governments for $1 to $10 per home, but for now, he is determined to be part of the solution to the global refugee crisis. While his company may not be able to house every displaced person, it is a start, and it is part of the silver buckshot needed to tackle climate change and its effects on human migration.


Despite the hurdles, Applied Bioplastics and Dr. Khan remain optimistic about the future of BTTR Board. They believe that their innovative product could be the key to providing refugees and other displaced people with safe, secure, and dignified housing that protects them from the elements and gives them a sense of hope for the future.


Moreover, the partnership between the Austin-based startup and Dr. Khan has also provided economic opportunities for farmers and rural communities in Bangladesh. By sourcing jute from local farmers and using it to create building materials, Applied Bioplastics has helped to boost the local economy and empower local communities.


Looking ahead, the team at Applied Bioplastics is committed to expanding the reach of BTTR Board and making it more widely available to those in need. By working with NGOs, aid organizations, and government agencies, they hope to scale up production and build more homes for refugees and displaced people around the world.


The collaboration between Applied Bioplastics and Dr. Khan is a shining example of how innovation and creativity can be harnessed to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges. By developing a plant-based plastic that can be used to construct safe and secure housing for refugees and other displaced people, they are making a real difference in the lives of those who need it most. And by providing economic opportunities for farmers and rural communities in Bangladesh, they are also helping to build a more sustainable and equitable future for all. #refugees #sustainability #climatechange #innovation #jute #plantbased #BTTRBoard #dignifiedshelters


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