Plastics Deliver Hope and Contribute to Sustainability In Developing Countries

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately one and a half billion years of healthy lives are lost annually due to disease and injury, including preventable infectious diseases.

These losses not only are devastating to the victims. They radically affect every aspect of social and economic life and the environment, particularly in developing countries. Instead of being productive and investing in the future, families must spend their resources on medical care and simply surviving, which can lead to poverty and its accompanying environmental degradation. Plus, the afflicted often become unproductive and unable to work.

Innovations in health, medical, and safety tools—often made possible with plastics—help save countless lives, prevent diseases, and avoid injuries. These advances contribute to sustainability by reducing injuries, disease, and premature deaths, along with their associated societal, economic, and environmental impacts.

While the developed world today may focus more on cutting edge advances, such as dissolvable plastic heart stents and prosthetics made with plastics on 3-D printers, in many developing areas, the focus remains simpler: survival, preventable diseases, mobility …

In a previous article from Plastics Make it Possible, we took a look at how three fairly simple products engineered with plastics are helping millions of people in the developing world. These inexpensive products deliver medicine, help prevent malaria infections, and provide mobility.

Here’s a look at three more.

Prosthetics with a Little Help from Plastics

More than 9 million people living in the developing world have lost a leg above the knee and do not have access to prosthetics. And due to accidents, violence, disease, and natural disasters in these regions, hundreds of thousands more become amputees each year.

In 2008, one non-profit started doing something about it.

D-Rev designs and delivers products to people living in the developing world on less than $4 per day. The non-profit worked with students at Stanford University who developed a knee joint using high strength plastics and stainless steel.

The joint “works with standard prosthetic leg systems,” “withstands humid and wet climates, without rusting or swelling,” and weighs less than a pound, according to D-Rev. The joint is durable—an oil-filled nylon polymer self-lubricates with use—and it provides a 165-degree range of motion “enabling kneeling, squatting and biking.”

Now in its third version, the “v3 ReMotion Knee” is in field trials and is expected to be mass-produced for worldwide scale. To deliver the knee joint, D-Rev partners with prosthetics providers worldwide and clinics around the world that are staffed with experts in prosthetics. D-Rev says the knee joint “gives patients a stable gait … and is designed with plastics” instead of less cost-effective materials often found in traditional devices.

D-Rev reports that more than 6,000 amputees in 14 countries have been fitted with the ReMotion Knee.

Plastic Storage Bags Help Poor Farmers Save Food in Africa

Low-income farmers in West and Central Africa often rely heavily on cowpeas (typically called black eyed peas in the U.S.) for income and food. Cowpeas grow well in the soil of these regions and are a rich source of protein, calories, vitamins, and minerals.

But weevils, a type of beetle, can destroy cowpeas in storage. A single weevil can quickly produce as many as 100 offspring, which can decimate the entire stored crop in a matter of months. So instead of storing cowpeas, farmers typically sell their crops at harvest when prices are low—and then need to buy cowpeas to eat later when prices typically are high.

To help increase food and financial security for these farmers, researchers at Purdue University developed a simple and effective technology that uses three layers of plastic bags to protect the post-harvest peas: two inner polyethylene bags that are sealed and an outer nylon bag that provides additional protection. The plastic bags create an oxygen-starved atmosphere that causes weevils to die.

According to University, the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS):

  • is low cost,
  • eliminates the need for pesticides,
  • allows farmers to store cowpeas, and
  • ensures a supply of clean cowpeas for consumption and sale for many months following harvest.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided funding for the PICS project, which has “engaged millions of farmers in more than 30,000 villages in 10 countries in West and Central Africa.” According to Bill Gates, PICS “increases poor farm families’ incomes by over 25 percent.”

The Gates Foundation is funding additional research by Purdue to determine if PICS (now dubbed Purdue Improved Crop Storage) can help control “storage insect pests of other crops including maize, sorghum, wheat, rice, peanut, common bean, hibiscus seed, mung bean, pigeon pea and bambara groundnut.”

Purdue also is pursuing another opportunity in the regions: producing and distributing the plastic storage bags. The PICS staff is “working with local manufacturers to produce PICS bags and with entrepreneurs to distribute them throughout West and Central Africa.”

Plastic “Wetsuit” Helps Save Mothers’ Lives

The World Health Organization identifies postpartum hemorrhage—maternal bleeding following childbirth—as a major cause of death and disability, particularly in the developing world. According to the international non-profit PATH (originally Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), postpartum hemorrhage is the most common cause of deaths among new mothers, accounting for one quarter of all maternal deaths, the vast majority of these in developing countries.

One of WHO’s recommended treatments for postpartum hemorrhage involves a device made with plastics that looks sort of like the bottom half of a wetsuit. PATH collaborated with a university, another global nonprofit focused on reproductive health, and a product supplier to develop an antishock garment that “evolved from a technology originally developed by NASA for use on the space station.”

Made of lightweight neoprene (a versatile synthetic rubber invented by DuPont in 1931), the garment is made to wrap around a mother’s legs, pelvis, and abdomen and is then fastened tightly with hook and loop fasteners (typically called Velcro® and made from nylon and polyester). The garment applies pressure that forces blood to vital organs and helps prevent hypovolemic shock caused by blood loss.

Once the garment was developed, the non-profit partnered with various groups and companies, from raw material providers to distributors, to make the life-saving device more affordable and readily available to health clinics.

According to PATH, clinical trials “found a 50 percent decrease in deaths from severe obstetric hemorrhage when the antishock garment was used at primary care facilities. When fastened correctly, it can keep a mother alive until she can be transported to a facility with a higher level of care. Over the course of six years, the garment was successfully used on nearly 1,400 women in India and Nigeria by health providers.”

These are just three examples among many that demonstrate how plastics, design, and engineering can contribute to sustainability … and make a world of difference in people’s lives.