Sunday, May 3, 2015

Introduction to salvaging shrink wrap for temporary shelters.

This blog entry will be completely overwhelming and way too detailed for most of you. I apologize to anyone subscribed to this blog who may not want such a detailed explanation of how to use recycled shrink wrap for refugee shelters. This is intended as an informational post for my volunteers and for others interested in replicating the project...

As many of you know, I've been following the crisis in Syria for the past several years, and thanks to an organization called NuDay Syria, I've been able to translate my feelings of horror and frustration into a few meaningful acts. For the first time in my life, there's a way to send physical items to people living through the worst humanitarian crisis we've seen in a generation. In my mind, the ability to see the horrors unfolding in real time on social media combined with the ability to actually send things that I've touched with my own hands... well, it eliminates every excuse that might justify our failure to act. It has also catalyzed a certain obsession with trying not to waste anything that might be useful to Syrians. And that's where the shrink wrap project came from. I won't go into all the details of how I got started... you can watch the videos for that, but it's enough to know that we are throwing out massive amounts of highly durable plastic every year. Plastic that does an incredible job protecting fancy yachts all throughout the harsh Maine winter. When it comes off, the vast majority of it is still in very good condition and can easily be turned into temporary shelters for people. All it takes is a quick google image search for "internally displaced tent syria" or something similar and it becomes abundantly clear how useful shrink wrap could be for people, especially those inside Syria who can't get to one of the nicer refugee camps in Jordan or elsewhere. 

I'm in my second year of the project now and I'm getting lots of great feedback and interest from people who want to help, which is great because I need a LOT of help, but I'm running out of time when it comes to explaining the process to everyone. What follows is a somewhat detailed tutorial of the process I use to sort,  fold, and prepare the recycled shrink wrap for shipment. 

For those who want a little more background on the project, you can check out these videos and links.

Video that Josh Gerritsen made about the project:

Short video that I made when I first started this which explains my rationale and basic process:

Here's a recent press release that the Dr. Shrink Company sent out to their customers, encouraging them to donate the ends of their shrink wrap rolls our to our project:

If you want to follow my efforts on Facebook, become of a fan of Maine Syria Relief .... It's basically just an extension of NuDay Syria's page for people that live in Maine. You can find NuDay Syria's official facebook page here. It is updated regularly and is a good way to follow all the amazing things that the organization is doing, but more on that later. I use my house as a drop of location for everything from shrink wrap to medical supplies, gently used clothing, food, diapers, etc... NuDay Syria has a warehouse in New Hampshire and the containers leave from there. 

OK... this is what I'm going to have people read before helping process the shrink wrap at my house, and it may be useful for others interested in expanding the collection in different areas. 

  1. Check for holes and thin spots.
  2. DRY
  3. Clean
  4. Cut off overly hardened and bulky ends
  5. Rolled as TIGHT AS POSSIBLE.

It's useful to think about where the shrink wrap comes from. Every piece will be slightly different. The bow and the stern often have overlapping parts that get shrunk and melted altogether, making it take up a lot of space in the container. Other parts, depending on the shape of the boat, might be too distorted and oddly shaped to be very useful for shelters in Syria. Each piece should be evaluated, but you can often tell by looking at the covered boat itself, whether or not the shrink wrap that comes off of it will be good quality. All 3 of the above boats look pretty ideal. 

Most of them will have this nylon strapping/rope welded into the bottom edges. This is what helped secure it to the boat. I leave all of this. The rope is extremely strong and in some cases the entire boat cover, complete with these ties in places could be used as a rain cover for an existing tent at an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in Syria. Even if they decide to cut the plastic to be better suited for a certain design, they can salvage all of this super strong rope. If you look at pictures of temporary shelters online, you'll see that rope is always an important part. Try not to cut this rope any more than you have to. 

 This just shows you what the edges look like on the other side. 

This part at the end should be cut off so that it's easier to roll it up very tightly. 

 This is a zipper door. Many of the covers have them because they allow access to the boat during the winter for repairs, etc. I leave them in place. In Syria, they can always cut them out and relocate them to different places on the tent if they want. 
 These are vents that get slipped into a small cut made in the plastic. They are extremely helpful and important because they allow for ventilation. Otherwise, condensation forms on the inside of the plastic and can be a bit of a tropical greenhouse... very wet. Even if these fall out, they should be collected and sent along with the covers. 

Next comes folding/rolling. I double it over in half lengthwise, and then fold it again, and roll it up as tight as possible. The tighter you roll, the less space it takes in the container which is enormously important! Every inch that is taken up by wasted air and loosely packed plastic is an inch that can't be used for something that may save someone's life, whether that be food, medical supplies, a blanket, or more shrink wrap. 

We cannot send dirty, moldy, wet plastic on a container. It runs the risk of creating a moldy environment for the rest of the container which could be disastrous. Sometimes it's worth it to clean off the shrink wrap, but sometimes not. Don't waste a bunch of time cleaning and drying this if you have a whole pile of good clean stuff. If you just need to dry it, the best bet is usually a bunch of towels and it doesn't take as long as you might think. The picture above is an example of something that is probably not worth our time. 

Another thing you have to watch out for is shrink wrap that has these darker grey patches. Often times, these areas are paper thin due to the plastic being "over shrunk" with the blow torch heating tool. If there are a bunch of areas like this on a cover, it's not worth it to send. We want to only send plastic that will last a long time. If it has a couple holes, but the rest of the cover is really good, I repair it with donated shrink wrap tape. Amazing stuff that is used a lot by the people who put these covers on.

At the end, the rolled up plastic can be tied off with a little of the nylon strapping/rope that will inevitably be littering the area. 

These photos are just for fun. I love making test shelters trying to experiment with different prototypes and designs that might be useful for Syrians. They also work well to keep the shrink wrap dry between shipments. 

One of the many test shelters I've built..... also works well to store the shrink wrap because I have to dry it before it goes on the container ship.

scenes from last summer

Recycled shrink wrap, repackaged and on the shipping container.

Some of the pieces are REALLY big and we always lay them out, repair any holes, and dry them. Occasionally, I decide the overall quality is too low and the plastic is too thin or too distorted to bother with. I don't want to send anything to Syria that isn't useful.

The covers usually come complete with vents and often zipper doors. It's fun to make test shelters on my lawn and then I even have a place to store my shrink wrap between shipments.

Another test shelter.

This is how it often arrives.

​Shrink wrap being used as hospital walls in Northern Syria and a special thank you note they taped to the wall for me.

​Shrink wrap being turned into a shelter at a new refugee camp in Northern Syria.