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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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