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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.