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Turning waste into building blocks of the future city

About the author

Architect, urban designer and co-president of design think tank Terreform ONE.

  • Fit to burst
    The effects of a disposable consumer culture have created a landfill timebomb across the world. Three billion extra people will add further strain. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Flexible metals
    Currently, waste metals are crushed into cubes, but in the future they could be cut into shapes which could then be used to build structures. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • Protecting the city
    One of Terreform ONE’s plans is to use parts of derelict ships to create a kind of buffer reef to help protect cities from the effect of storms. (Copyright: Terreform ONE)
  • Re-use revolution
    In Cuba, trade embargoes have created a “make-do and mend” culture – an attitude the rest of the world will have to adopt in the future. (Copyright: Emmanuel Huybrechts/Flickr)
  • Bubble of opportunity
    Methane created by rotting rubbish could be used to power small power stations – creating another end use out of our city waste. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • Electronic pollution
    The West exports some of its waste in the form of junked electronic equipment, which adds to landfill issues in developing countries. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • Ever-growing mountain
    Paper will have to be recycled more to ease strain on landfills –New York throws out enough to fill the Empire State Building every two weeks. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
Modern cities create vast quantities of waste. But rather than causing a crisis, could these overflowing landfills help create urban landscapes of the future? In the third of Building Tomorrow’s expert viewpoints, urban designer Mitchell Joachim looks at ways our trash can be turned into treasure.

Cities were invented for a multitude of purposes. First was the need for the concentration of vital resources in a given region - then came their role as places for worship, trade, governmental control and military defence. But in our modern age, urban spaces were conceived and shaped primarily around mass market industrialisation.

Today the consequences of the post-industrial city have had an incredible impact on the environment. It is widely accepted cities impinge on areas well beyond their borders. Waste streams in cities are the leading factor in pollution of the areas outside their geo-political boundaries.

Urban waste must be reconfigured – our time has run out. Reports of garbage problems from Naples in Italy to Beijing in China underscore the size of the problem. Landfills are filled and incinerators have the potential to release poisons such as dioxin. We must have a new strategy towards refuse in urban places, one that includes the design of consumables in the first place. Many concepts exist already, but what are some of the most radical solutions to our wasteful ways?

Recently, the planet reached 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere for the first time since modern humans evolved. Reversing such wasteful habits will require tremendous effort, as minuscule changes will not alter this course. Humanity has reached its peak of one-way consumption.              

Now is the time to design waste to regenerate our cities. What are the possibilities for urban environments after our aged infrastructure is recalibrated? How might bigger cities and waste mix? One key idea is that waste is not recycled through infrastructural mechanisms but instead up-cycled in perpetuity.

All over the globe municipal waste is on the rise. In China, the amount of municipal solid waste produced is rising by 6% per year. It has kept pace with the rapid urbanization in China. Many parts of South America are also rapidly urbanising and their waste has grown with it. Brazilian cities have had a steady 10% increase in waste headed for landfills. India will see a 500% increase in e-waste – materials from cell phones, TVs, refrigerators – destined for urban landfills. A lot of it is imported from developed countries. South Africa and China will also have to deal with 400% more garbage from foreign e-waste. 

Mankind will have to solve our waste problem in cities. If we don’t, it’ll be the end of us. There are a number of possible solutions, and some of them are already being adopted.

Super-sized waste

The first credible step is to reduce trash by considering the life cycle of objects we make. Things that are designed for obsolescence should be outlawed. Additionally, products must be manufactured with the intent to reuse, disassemble, take back or upcycle.  For instance, instead of tossing out bottles we could adapt them for use as planters, lighting fixtures, building wall elements.

Other cities have highly organised systems to solve these problems. In Zurich, the city requires individuals pay handsomely for waste that is simply discarded, while thorough recycling is encouraged by free citywide collection services. Therefore well over 90% of municipal waste inside Zurich is recycled and sent to incinerators to produce energy. Burning waste is not the answer but it does have opportunities in the mid-term. It requires substantial need for enforceable regulations, comprehensive industry controls, economic feasibility plans, and the latest ultra-expensive technology such as plasma gasification plants.

In similarly developed cities - Malmo, Tokyo, or Copenhagen – it makes sense to use a waste-to-energy processes. These prevailing urban populations are stable and easily taxed to support such a system – not so easy in developing cities such as Lagos or Jakarta.

Outreach programs that invite the public to observe civic waste systems as a spectacle are instrumental in spreading awareness. The Hangzhou Environmental Group in China has over 10,000 tourists a year visiting its landfill facility. Freshkills landfill in New York will be transformed into the largest public park in over 100 years that will showcase engineered nature from waste. Cuba, an island nation that has been cut-off from trade imports, has conserved almost everything through carful recycling of parts - from 1950’s cars to eyeglasses, nothing is wasted.  

Look at how such a system might affect the US. America is the lead creator of waste on the earth, making approximately 30% of the world's trash and tossing out around three-quarters of a ton per US citizen per year. It seems value has devolved into rampant waste production: mega-products scaled for super-sized franchise brands, big-box retail, XXL jumbo paraphernalia and so on. The US mindset is typifying a throwaway consumer culture. Where does it all end up? Heather Rogers said in her investigative book Gone Tomorrow that throwing things away is unsustainable. The first step we must take is reduction – meaning a massive discontinuation of objects designed for obsolescence. Then we need a radical reuse plan. Our waste crisis is immense. What is our call to action?

New York City is currently disposing of nearly 33,000 tons of waste per day. Previously, most of this discarded material ended up in Fresh Kills on Staten Island, before operations were blocked. Manhattan’s inhabitants discard enough paper products to fill the Empire State Building every two weeks. Terreform ONE’s Rapid Re(f)use and Homeway projects strive to capture, reduce and redesign New York’s refuse infrastructure. The initiative imagines an extended city reconstituted from its own junked materials. The concept remakes the city by using all the trash entombed in the Fresh Kills landfill. Theoretically, the method should produce, at minimum, seven new Manhattan Islands. New York City’s premier landfill was started by the divisive urban planner Robert Moses and driven by apathetic workers and machines. Now, guided by a prudent community with smart equipment, we must reshape it.

‘Smart trash’

How could this work? Outsized automated 3-D printers could be modified to rapidly process trash and to complete the task within decades. These potential automatons would be entirely based on existing techniques commonly used in industrial waste compaction devices. To accomplish this job, nothing drastically new needs to be invented. Most technologies are intended to be off-the-shelf. Instead of machines that crush objects into cubes, compaction devices could benefit from adjustable jaws that would craft simple shapes into smart ‘puzzle blocks’ for assembly. The blocks of waste material could be predetermined, using computational geometries, in order to fit domes, archways, lattices, windows, or whatever patterns would be needed. Different materials could serve specified purposes: transparent plastic for fenestration, organic compounds for temporary decomposable scaffolds, metals for primary structures and so on. Eventually, the future city would make no distinction between waste and supply.

If you think this sounds familiar, it is. Think back to the 2008 Pixar animation WALL-E.  At approximately the same time that Rapid R(e)fuse was initiated, the movie was announced. WALL-E’s name is an acronym: Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class. Left behind by mankind, he toils with trillions of tons of non-recycled inner-city trash. He tirelessly configures mountains of discarded material. Why pyramids of trash? WALL-E’s daily perpetual feats seem almost futile. The film omits exactly why he is programmed to pile refuse; and there is the shortcoming.

There’s a deeper motivation for stacking refuse. What if the rubbish was refabricated to become real urban spaces or buildings? If it is plausible to adapt current machinery, how much material is available? At first sight, any sanitary landfill may be viewed as an ample supply of building materials. Heavy industrial technologies crush cars or to automatically sort out garbage are readily available. 3-D printing has exhausting capabilities if adjusted to larger scales. This is where Terreform ONE’s city began.

The envisioned city would be derived from trash; not ordinary trash, but ‘smart refuse’. A significant factor of the city composed from smart refuse is ‘post-tuning’ – and we would have to adapt this raw material for use. Integration into the city texture would be a learning process. In time, the responses would eventually become more attuned to the needs of the urban dweller. This new city may be built from trash, but it will also be connected via computers. The buildings blocks will learn.

Cities, unlike machines, are similar to a complex ecology. Ecology is capable of achieving a continuous harmonious state, or even further, a positive intensification. If ecological models are productively everlasting, urban models can logically follow.

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