Several years ago, David Saiia invented a tabletop lathe, similar to a hand-cranked apple corer, that successfully turned plastic bottles into a thatch-like roofing material for developing countries.

The process proved so promising—especially as a sustainable enterprise—that he quit his day job as a professor at Duquesne University and founded a nonprofit company, the Reuse Everything Institute (REII), dedicated to finding profitable reuses for the proliferation of plastic waste on a global scale.

The idea has since grown into a full-fledged nonprofit undertaking. REII has teamed up with students through CMU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Together, they are working to automate the plastic-shredding machine on a portable scale so it can be shared with countries as a sustainable business model.

The business also has promising implications for Pittsburgh, too, says Saiia, who lives in Mt. Lebanon.

“The plastic bottle problem is global one,” he says. “We started this in Ecuador but we see this as being just as applicable in Pittsburgh. Communities that don’t have recycling can inexpensively pick up those bottles, process them locally and sell them.”

When completed in the next few months, the automated machine will cut waste plastic and weld the pieces together into continuous ribbons of plastic. The ribbons can be fashioned into a variety of construction products, from agricultural fencing to roofing and greenhouse covers.

REII and CMU’s Engineers Without Borders recently launched a campaign through Razoo to fund the field-testing of the technology in Ecuador this August.

“Our idea is not to create just the technology but provide business opportunities for local entrepreneurs using our technology,” says Vananh Le, co-founder and director of REII. “We will train entrepreneurs to start and run these businesses (as a modified franchise).”

The nonprofit will provide maintenance, support, training and networking for the franchises, which will funnel a stream of income back to the nonprofit to cover operating costs.

The machines are six to nine months away from a commercial roll out, says Saiia. Partnerships with schools and educational institutions around the world are also planned.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared...