9 building materials made entirely from waste products

No doubt an architectural treasure trove. Image: Cezary p at Wikimedia Commons.

Building with Waste, a new book about, well, you can guess, may not sound like it should top your holiday reading list – but, construction geeks as we are, we found its premise fascinating. Every year, human settlements produce 1.3bn tonnes worth of solid waste products. The book argues that we could and should be putting this to good use as cheap, durable and green building materials. 


Compilers Dirk E. Hebel, Marta H. Wisniewska and Felix Heise looked into the worlds of architecture, construction, and the delightfully named field of "garbology" to find new and exciting materials made out of stuff you'd normally find at a landfill site. Their book argues that, in future, we could end up re-using pretty much everything, as we did back when all waste was organic.

This could come in handy if, as is predicted, our municipal waste output doubles by 2025. As Mitchell Joachim, one of the book's contributors, puts it:

The future city makes no distinction between waste and supply. 

So, from animal blood bricks to nappy roofing, here are our favourite waste-based materials featured in the book. 

1. NewspaperWood

Image: ViJ5.

This design comes froom Norway, where over 1m tonnes of paper and cardboard are recycled every year. The wood is created by rolling up paper and solvent-free glue to create something not dissimilar to a log, then chopping it into usable planks. The wood can then be sealed so it's waterproof and flame-retardant, and used to build anything you would normally build with wood. 

2. Nappy roofing

Image: Lightweight tiles ltd.

Good news: something can be salvaged from all those nappies and sanitary products we throw away, even though they're, well, really gross. Special recycling plants separate out the polymers from the, er, organic waste, and these polymers can then be used to ceate fibre-based construction materials like the tiles in the image above. 

3. Recy blocks

Image: Gert de Mulder. 

These colourful bricks are made from old plastic bags, which are notoriously difficult to recycle in any other way. Recycled bags or plastic packaging are placed in a heat mold, and forced together to form the blocks. They're too lightweight to act as load-bearing walls, but can be used to divide up rooms or outdoor areas. 

4. Blood Brick

Image: Jack Munro.

This idea rests on the assumption that animal blood counts as a waste product. This, we realise, is a potentially offensive idea – but while carnivores are still munching away, they're still wasting loads of animal blood, especially in societies without industrialised food production systems. And, as it turns out, blood is one of the strongest bio-adhesives out there, as it contains high levels of protein. 

British architecture student Jack Munro proposes using freeze-dried blood (which comes as a a powder), mixed with sand to form a paste; this can then be cast as bricks. This could be especially useful in remote communities, where blood from animal slaughter is plentiful, but strong construction materials are thin on the ground.

5. Bottle bricks 

Image: Aaron "tango" Tang via Flickr. 

This proposal is a little different, as it relies on producing a consumer good specifically so it can later be used as a building material. Lots of companies now make bottles in cuboid or other tesselative shapes, to make them easier to transport.

But the practice of doing so to create construction materials actually started with beer company Heineken in the 1960s – Alfred Henry Heineken, owner of the brewery, visited a Carribean island and was dismayed at both lack of shelter, and the number of discarded Heineken bottles scattered everywhere. So the company landed on a new, brick-shaped design for the bottle, shown in the images above. The bottleneck slots into the base of the next bottle, forming an interlocking line. 

6. Smog insulators

Image: New Terrirories/City of Bangkok.

One of our biggest waste receptacles is the air, which isn't great for our lungs, or for the human race's chances of survival on a planet that's rapidly getting hotter. "Dustyrelief", a system created by the City of Bangkok and design firm New-Territories, involves placing an electrically charged metal mesh over a building, which attracts large smog particles and sticks them together. Eventually, this creates a kind of silvery fur over the building's surface. Not particularly attractive, perhaps, but much better than a similar shag forming on the insides of your lungs.

7. Mushroom walls

Image: Evocative designs.

Here, designers figured out a way to grow wall insulator and packing materials using mycelium, a bacteria found in rotting organisms like tree trunks and agricultural byproducts. If placed in a mold, these organic matters grow to the desired shape within a couple of days, and can then be stopped using a hot oven. This is particularly useful because traditional insulating and packing materials tend to be non-biodegradable, or, in the case of asbestos, poisonous.

8. Plasphalt 

The bit on the left is plasphalt, the bit on the right is asphalt. Image: TEWA.

OK, yes, we mostly like this one for its fun name. Plasphalt is made up of grains of plastic produced from unsorted plastic waste, which replaces the sand and gravel traditionally used in asphalt production. In testing, it was found that plasphalt roads were far less vulnerable to wear and tear than traditional asphalt, because the asphalt emulsion bonded better with the plastic than with gravel or sand.

9. Wine cork panels

Image: Yemm & Hart materials.

These wall or floor tiles are made by combining recycled granulated cork with whole wine corks, which you can see as those oblong shapes in the tiles above. This is a pretty useful idea, considering the world apparently consumes around 31.7bn bottles of wine a year. For shame.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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