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.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.