Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and it''s also widespread in Paraguay, where some 300,000 families lack adequate housing. Motivated by that fact&8212'and by the severe deforestation that has been wrought upon the land&8212'a local Paraguayan activist has devised a way to create recyclable housing materials without using wood.

Social activist Elsa Zald­var has found a way to mix loofah, the cucumberlike vegetable that gets dried into a scratchy sponge for use in bathing, along with corn and palm husks into a soup of melted, recycled plastics to form strong, lightweight panels suitable for use in houses and furniture. Loofah are already readily available in Paraguay thanks to a project Zald­var, as head of nonprofit organization Base ECTA, initiated to empower local women. Working with Zald­var, industrial engineer Pedro Padr³s then devised a machine to combine the vegetable materials and plastics into panels that can be produced with varying strength, flexibility, weight, insulating qualities and colours. The lightweight composite panels are not only easier to handle than lumber or brick, but also much better in an earthquake or other natural catastrophe' if destroyed, they are fully recyclable, too. Combining a melting unit, mixer, extruder and cutting unit, Padr³s'' machine can produce a half-metre-wide panel 120 metres long in one hour. Costs have already fallen to less than about USD 3 per square metre, making the material competitive with existing construction materials.

A newly granted Rolex Award will finance a promotion centre, the construction of three model houses and a video that will be used to describe the project, which has already attracted commercial interest as well. One to sponsor, test out, or otherwise get involved in (Related: Instead of Styrofoam, fungus and rice hulls.)

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