Waste management and architecture

© Fred Dufour via Getty Images

On the eve of 2018, China welcomed the New Year by enforcing a ban on the import of 24 different types of waste including plastics and textiles. Ports across EU, USA, Australia etc. are piling up with bales of material which once fuelled China’s booming manufacturing business. Waste management is now an imminent crisis as severe as climate change.

Marine pollution due to ungoverned garbage disposal © Camp Live Oak

In her 1963 landmark book ‘Silent Spring’, Rachel Carson writes an account of the powerful and often negative effect humans have on the natural world. Plastic has polluted even the most uninhabited places on earth. Our ocean gyres are filled with flotsam consisting of polythene bags, plastic cutlery, Styrofoam plates etc. The largest of these is the Great Pacific garbage patch with a layer 9ft deep, 7 million tonnes in weight and an area twice the size of Texas. The scenic beaches of Bali are now shut due to a ‘garbage emergency’.

The problem is not with the nature of plastic, which is made of petroleum, a useful resource. Research is already underway to derive fuel out of plastic waste. The problem lies in the way objects are designed today – to be discarded. The ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ mentality has to change. In simple words, waste could be described as something that can no longer be of any use. However, waste is but a resource, in the wrong place.

Heineken WOBO. Image courtesy: Heineken

Take the case of Alfred Heineken who went for a vacation to the island of Curacao in the Dutch Caribbean in 1963. He found the beaches littered with beer bottles left behind by tourists, whilst the poor locals had to deal with the trash. That is when he commissioned architect John Habraken to design a beer bottle that could serve as a brick after the beer is consumed. A prototype was made called the Heineken World Bottle (or WOBO) which was rectangular in shape and could be interlocked. A few houses were also built on the island using this brick. Though the prototype didn’t receive commercial success, it does mark an important moment which Habraken later described as ‘the first industrial initiative to develop recyclable packaging”

In their book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough, champion the need for a closed circulation of resources rather than sending them to a grave. Production processes should be designed to imitate nature’s system of cradle to cradle nutrient flow, wherein the very concept of waste doesn’t exist. Objects should be designed to tackle the waste before it is produced, in a way they can be disassembled for use.

Image courtesy: Urban Hub

Companies should operate with a metabolism where technical materials flow right back into the industry. Where plastic from computers is reused to make computers and not a low-quality bucket. Objects must be designed in a way that their lifecycle has the least impact on the environment, and the product itself lasts for a very long time. The book also introduces us to ’Upcycling’- giving a new life to an old object by using it in a new context, thereby saving materials and energy embodied in making the given object. The goal is not to deprive ourselves but celebrate what we already have.

Earthship in Taos, Mexico. Image courtesy: Earthship Biotecture (Click to enlarge)

In the 1970’s architect and “Garbage Warrior” Micheal Reynolds pioneered the concept of Earthships – passive solar buildings that are handmade by the owners using waste materials. External walls made of earth-rammed tires or glass bottles soak up heat during the day and radiate heat during the night, keeping the interiors comfortable. Some innovative citizens have ‘invented’ bottle bricks – where discarded plastic bottles are completely filled up with compacted inert trash and then used for building. Non-load- bearing walls are often made of a honeycomb of recycled cans joined by concrete and thickly plastered with adobe. Water is harvested from the rain and snow and power derived from the sun and wind. Toilets are flushed using grey water from the kitchen or bathroom. Each Earthship is a unique reflection of their user’s space requirements, creativity, and materials available at the time of building.

Keyboard filler slab © Biome Environmental Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

Architect Laurie Baker championed the cause of affordable housing through the 3 R`s of waste management REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. Buildings are planned and constructed in a way that requires 25% less material as compared to a conventional house. Use of exposed brick eliminates the need for plaster. Brick jaalis are used in place of windows where possible. Old glass bottles are reused to filter in the light. Broken china pieces become ornamental mosaic floors. He also advocated the use of ‘filler slabs’ where the use of concrete underneath the rebar can be minimized using a ‘filler’ material like Mangalore tiles or even keyboards!

Collage house. Image courtesy: S+PS architects

Architects S+PS, have created the ‘Collage House’ in Navi Mumbai where the entire façade is made of doors and windows salvaged from demolished homes in the city. One also finds a use of recycled materials like flooring out of stone waste or old Burma teak rafters and purlins etc. thus reusing the intangible as well- like history, space, and memories.

Earthship concept in Taos, Mexico. Image courtesy Earthship Biotecture

In 2011, the waste from Construction, Demolition and Excavation industry accounted for 10-12 million tonnes or about 25% of the solid waste generated in India. On one hand, we are facing a global shortage of sand required for construction; whereas on the other we have concrete debris being dumped into wetlands, consisting of the very same sand and aggregate we are scrambling to procure. There is extensive scope for recycling of this waste by converting it to aggregate or as hybrid powders that can partly replace cement in concrete. Developers and industries should promote research and usage of financially and ecologically viable concepts like hybrid fiber–reinforced concrete (SHFRC) which uses recycled steel fibres from waste tires.

New policies can be drafted mandating the use of recycled material in new construction projects. A global war has already been declared against the ubiquitous polythene bag, by banning it and trying to reuse in projects like road building. Our biggest tool as consumers is the power of conscious choice, based on life cycle of products not just its end use. We must raise our voices and call out companies for their wasteful packaging that lasts longer than the product itself. Computer giant Dell has now recycled plastics collected from waterways and beaches for use in their new packaging tray. In 2017, its ocean plastics pilot project kept out 16,000 pounds of plastic from entering the ocean.

Versova beach transformation. Image courtesy: twitter/@AfrozShah1

Waste management is not just a civic problem, but a reflection of our consumerist lifestyle and how we treat our resources. What difference will one bottled water make-said 7.4 billion human beings!” Every drop makes the ocean, rather cleans it up; like Mr. Afroze Shah. He is a lawyer from Mumbai who single-handedly initiated a clean-up of the Versova beach. 7200 tonnes of plastic was prevented from reaching the deep sea and sent away to a sanitised landfill.

We too can do our bit by taking responsibility for the waste we generate. Let’s start at the source, let’s start with the basics, by segregating our wastes, setting up compost bins and repurposing objects as many times before throwing them out. We must take action now and change our habits to be more mindful of how we tread on the planet’s resources. We only have one
home and this one is not disposable.

About the author:

Jinisha Lodaya is an architect by profession and also an Asst. Professor of Humanities at Rizvi College of Architecture, Mumbai. She loves food, travel and lives life by an ever-expanding bucket-list.

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