Two Bolivian ladies with a crisp packet blanket.

Engineering students turn crisp packets into blankets for Bolivia

Students from Sheffield University are helping to prevent the rising number of hypothermia cases in Bolivia by developing a project that sees local women create blankets made from recycled crisp packets.

Twenty-two year old mechanical engineering students Jon Gregg and Aimee Clark, along with Amy Scrimgeour, a 21 year old Economics student, spent six weeks in Bolivia earlier this year setting up a business in joint collaboration between Sheffield University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Sheffield Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE).

Blankets 4 Bolivia

The Blankets 4 Bolivia project was developed after students travelled to Bolivia and experienced some of the tribulations that the communities suffer, such as bitter cold winter nights. The aim of the project was to help local women become more self-sufficient in the face of environmental and economic challenges by utilising local resources and skills, providing a more substantial and consistent source of income to the community.

“The project idea came from the concerns of a number of students who had travelled to Bolivia before,” says Jon Gregg, Sheffield SIFE’s company secretary. “They understood the complex problems that many people in Bolivia faced and where spurred on to make a change.”

It was important to Gregg and his colleagues to get the locals involved, to build self-sufficient communities and work with them on this project.

“One of the most crucial aspects of the project was working together with local people, to help build on their existing passions and skills instead of forcing our ideas on them,” he says.

Developing the blankets and business

After developing a simple prototype using a bag sealing machine in the UK, the team sourced similar manufacturing equipment locally in Bolivia and got to work establishing the business.

The blankets were made by sealing recycled crisp packets together into sheets using the heat sealer. Crisp packets were chosen as the ideal material due to the fact their foil layer reflects and retains up to 97 per cent of body heat, while their plastic layer provides extra insulation and is waterproof, making the crisp packet blanket more effective than normal emergency blankets. Gregg investigated the materials under the SURE scheme in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in preparation for the project.

The blankets are quick and simple to create and the Bolivian woman learnt how to make them speedily. These women are currently working to a target of 50 blankets a week, all of which will save hundreds of lives.

Engaging with the local community

The project engaged all of the community at various different stages. Firstly, a crisp packet collection was set up to obtain the raw material for the blankets through the community recycling cooperative and a simple crisp packet collection at schools. The students also established a contract with local crisp packet manufacturer Estrella, who provided the raw materials for the blankets, ensuring that it was no longer a harmful and wasted resource.

“The blankets will be manufactured from recycled crisp packets donated by local crisp manufacturers, which normally would be put into landfill,” explains Gregg.

A business was then set up to manufacture and sell the foil blankets, with training provided to the local women before the blankets were sold to community members, Non Government Organisations and schools.

“After they are manufactured they will be distributed to homeless men, women and children or used for disaster relief,” Gregg adds.

Convincing the locals

The main problem the students encountered was convincing the community that a crisp packet blanket was a viable idea.

“The largest obstacle we had to over come was getting the Bolivian community to take the project on board, getting them enthusiastic about the blanket concept and to show them it was a viable product and project,” says Gregg. “We overcame this barrier by running education sessions and highlighting the social, commercial and environmental benefits to both them and their beautiful La Paz.”

He adds that they were also educated about the symptoms of hypothermia.

“The community members were made part of a health campaign to educate the public on the symptoms of hypothermia, when and how to seek help and ways to protect themselves from the cold.”

Creating a sustainable project they can expand on

In the future Gregg and his colleagues hope that this will become a sustainable project that they can expand on.

“The future plans for Blankets 4 Bolivia is that after one womens group is running sustainably, expansion to other womens groups can occur. Also development of commercial thermal products by women in Bolivia will ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the project and for their families.”

Improving the students' job prospects

Gregg is very grateful to have been part of this project and really feels like he has made a difference and that he will continue to do so.

“Having been to Bolivia and now continually being involved on a daily basis gives me a real sense of purpose,” he explains. “Knowing that my efforts are really going to help change peoples lives spurs me on to do bigger and better things in the future.

“Having gone to Bolivia and given myself the challenge of this intricate and complicated project has really made my self-confidence grow and made me feel I am much more equipped for the big wide world of graduate employment,” he concludes.

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