How Plastic Innovations Help Make Millions of Lives Better

Young child biting onto plastic bowl

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

A soft drink delivery crate. A mosquito net. A wheelchair made with patio furniture.

What do these have in common?

Well, they’re made with plastics. Plus, they’re inexpensive. But most importantly, they’re helping save or improve millions of lives in developing countries. While contributing to sustainability.

Millions of lives? Inexpensive plastic products contributing to sustainability? Really?

According to the World Health Organization, approximately one and a half billion years of healthy lives are lost annually due to disease and injury, such as preventable infectious diseases. These losses are not only personally devastating. They also 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 coping, often leading to poverty and its accompanying environmental degradation, while the afflicted 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, from children in sub-Sahara Africa to suburban American families. These advances help improve basic hygiene, contribute to safety, and enable lifesaving measures – thereby contributing to sustainability by reducing injuries, disease and premature deaths and their associated societal, economic and environmental impacts.

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

Here’s a look at three (relatively) simple plastic products that together have positively impacted millions of lives in less developed regions of the world.

Plastic Package Delivers Lifesaving Medicine

Fifteen percent of deaths in children under five in sub-Sahara Africa is caused by an easily treated condition: diarrhea. Due to an ineffective distribution system, inexpensive treatment kits in this region only make it to some central locations but not out to the far-flung villages where kids live. And die.

Workers for ColaLife, an independent non-profit UK-based agency that provides aid to the area, noticed that one well known product has a network that reaches deep into these to remote villages: Coca-Cola. And the iconic hourglass shape of the bottles left many spaces in the plastic carrying case … spaces that could carry medicine if it were packaged correctly.

Thus the genesis of the AidPod, an innovative new package and system to deliver life-saving medicine to children in remote villages.

To piggyback on Coca-Cola’s distribution system, ColaLife turned to the company pi global to develop a self-contained plastic package for an anti-diarrheal kit that fits snugly into the spaces around the soft drink bottles. The entire package is sealed with a tough plastic film that helps prevent contamination and protect against damage in shipping. The medicine is enclosed within the AidPod in single dose pouches – parents and kids simply mix it with water inside the plastic AidPod container and drink it down.

The AipPod received both the Diamond and the Special Award for “Food Security” at the 2013 DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation.

Plastic Nets Help Combat Malaria

According to the World Health Organization, there were an estimated 207 million cases of malaria in 2012, a disease spread by a mosquito bite. An estimated 627,000 people die of malaria each year. And it’s mostly young children – nearly every 60 seconds a child dies from malaria.

While mosquito nets by themselves have proven useful in the fight against malaria, plastic nets treated with insecticides that ward off malaria-carrying mosquitoes save countless lives and are one of the most cost-effective methods of preventing the spread of the disease. Developed in the 1980s, insecticide treated nets (ITNs) are dip-treated in insecticides that repel and even kill disease-carrying mosquitoes.

The first generation of ITNs had to be retreated after approximately six months of use.  Although the nets could be dip-treated multiple times, the process poses a significant logistical problem in rural areas where the costs and sheer distance of travel are prohibitive.

Newer technologies allow for production of long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLINs) that remain effective for approximately five years. Polyester nets bind the insecticide to the nets’ surface, while polyethylene nets incorporate the insecticide into the material itself. Field tests have found that both nets can be washed and reused at least 20 times and still retain their effectiveness.

To help further, companies such as BASF and Bayer produce kits to treat nets with insecticides on site — and they are working to make the kits more readily available. These kits allow previously untreated plastic nets to be transformed into lifesaving LLINs.

Wheelchairs Deliver Mobility, With the Help of Plastics

After vacationing in Morocco where he watched a disabled woman drag herself across a dirt road, mechanical engineer and inventor Don Schoendorfer learned that an estimated 100 million disabled people in developing countries need wheelchairs but cannot afford them. These disabilities are due to many causes, including disease, lack of immunizations and medical attention, armed conflict, and injuries.

Schoendorfer decided to found the non-profit Free Wheelchair Mission and devote his life to providing “the transforming gift of mobility” through an inexpensive wheelchair.

The well-known, rugged polypropylene lawn chair created the foundation for the wheelchair because it can comfortably accommodate people of various sizes and is “waterproof, durable, drillable, comfortable, washable, simple to locate and easy to manufacture,” according to Schoendorfer. Tires needed to be tough and durable to “allow the wheelchair to traverse uneven, rocky, muddy terrain,” so he chose 24-inch inflatable mountain bike tires (typically made with butyl rubber, silicon, nylon, etc.). A pair of eight-inch plastic castor wheels on the front of the chair enables steering.

The wheelchair also is equipped with a polypropylene footplate that can be adjusted based on the recipient’s size and disability, along with a plastic foam cushion to help prevent pressure sores caused by long episodes of sitting. A tubular steel frame holds these and the other parts together.

Since 2001, the Mission has shipped wheelchairs to more than 84 developing countries across the globe, where they are assembled by local partners and distributed, giving “the gift of mobility” to more than 640,000 needy people.

The total cost to manufacture and deliver the wheelchair to remote corners of the globe? About 72 dollars. The cost to the recipient? Zero dollars.

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