Case Study

How to turn waste into warmth


The better the question

What if there were a single answer to multiple problems?

Many refugees face poor protection from harsh winters, poor opportunities for decent work and an environment rife with plastic waste.

Forty percent of the global refugee population is concentrated in the Middle East. With 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, and millions more seeking temporary shelter in camps across the region,1 it’s a huge challenge for local governments to provide for their safety and security.

With planned and improvised shelters lacking long-term provisions for cold climate conditions, the challenge increases substantially in the winter months. Relying heavily on the distribution of blankets, stoves and fuel, typical approaches to winterization assistance can cause as many problems as they solve, increasing living costs for displaced families and negatively impacting their health. They can also negatively impact the surrounding environment, with 8 million tons of plastic waste generated across the region’s refugee camps each year.2

But what if, instead of being a problem, that waste could be transformed into insulation material, providing a better answer to the challenge of providing warm, safe shelter? Even better, what if refugees themselves could get involved in the production of those materials, offering opportunities for dignified and stable employment?

Comprised of The Polyfloss Factory, Engineers Without Borders Norway (EWB-N) and Field Ready — and supported by the Norwegian Red Cross — this is exactly what the innovative Waste for Warmth partnership has been figuring out.

The waste problem
tons of plastic waste are generated across refugee camps in the Middle East each year.

Engineers without borders Norway


The better the answer

Turning waste into warmth

Easy-to-operate Polyfloss technology enables the local upcycling of waste thermoplastics into tent insulation.

The approach being developed and tested by Waste for Warmth revolves around innovative Polyfloss technology. Waste thermoplastics — i.e., plastics that become moldable at elevated temperatures and solidify upon cooling — are collected in the refugee camps, sorted, shredded and cleaned. These plastic chips are then heated and spun in small machines, which transform them into a mass of thin fibers resembling cotton candy.

The resulting material makes for ideal tent insulation and, because Polyfloss machines can be easily operated by two people with minimal training, this technology means refugees can manufacture their own insulation. It’s an ingenious model, generating multiple benefits:

  • Exemplifying circular economy principles, it upcycles local waste, giving discarded plastics new life as insulation products.
  • On-site production of these insulation products not only offers refugees opportunities for decent work and to generate income, but also alleviates the need for shipment of materials that would involve far greater cost and environmental impact.
  • Use of these plastic insulation materials alleviates reliance on burning dirty, dangerous and expensive fuels for warmth, further reducing environmental impact and risks to displaced families’ health and safety.
The potential impact of Waste for Warmth is as big as the problem and we see the tremendous opportunity to directly impact millions of lives.


The better the world works

Creating impact at scale

A simulation model developed by an EY team has helped Waste for Warmth demonstrate the feasibility of the concept and prepare for scale.

To support initial field trials and to help prepare for scale, an EY team developed a simulation model for production line resource requirements. This allowed project participants to easily test different scenarios and production line configurations, and to make data-driven decisions that enhance the efficiency of the process.


Concept proven, the goal is now for it to be adopted and implemented across multiple refugee camps, and EY teams have conducted further projects exploring business and financial modeling, unit economics and potential economies of scale, and how to quantify the positive environmental and humanitarian impacts of the Waste for Warmth approach.


“How many refugees face lack of protection from harsh winters? How many tons of recyclable plastic waste is out there?” asks Marianne Nilsen Sturmair, Managing Director of EWB-N. “The potential impact of Waste for Warmth is as big as the problem and we see the tremendous opportunity to directly impact millions of lives — not only by providing insulation, but doing so in a way that creates employment and tackles climate change at the same time.”


“Of course, realizing that potential demands funding, which in turn demands a solid business case,” she adds. “Thanks to EY, we’re now able to simulate different scenarios, show and quantify both direct and indirect benefits, and demonstrate that the Waste for Warmth model is replicable, scalable and financially sustainable.”

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