Container houses are literally made of trash, you know – the steel containers, most of which originate in China, just aren’t cost-effective to ship back and reuse, so thousands of discarded ones began piling up around port towns. One day, someone looked at one and said, “I should make this into a house.” That’s where so many things came from; someone looked at a piece of trash and said to themselves, “I can work with this.” (I mean, that’s how most of my relationships started, too.)
Recycling is going to have to be the wave of the future. Right now, each American produces almost a ton of trash a year, and the rest of the world is rapidly catching up. China is producing 6% more trash a year, every year; India isn’t far behind. We’re going to run out of room at some point, like an eccentric hoarder shuffling sideways through stacks of old newspapers. Experts say that in the future, all our trash will be fed into massive 3D printers that will sort the different materials and then reconstitute them into shingles, bricks, even panes of glass. That’s a ways off, though. In the meantime, people have come up with smaller-scale innovations.
In Norway, they invented “NewspaperWood” which, as you’ve probably figured out, is a simulated wood substance made from newspapers. The newspaper is moistened, pressed together, and then rolled into a “log,” which is then dried and chemically cured. The final product is as solid as real wood, waterproof, flame-retardant, and even has the appearance of wood grain. The inventor makes NewspaperWood by gluing and pressing the newspaper together by hand, but once the process is automated, NewspaperWood could easily replace real wood, and you’d never even know the difference. (They’ve got to come up with a better name, though.)
In the same vein, they’ve begun making bricks out of plastic grocery bags in India. The bags, which are notoriously difficult to recycle, make up a majority of most of the dumps and landfills in India, but a Danish researcher (what is it with Scandinavians building trash houses?) invented a process to melt and remold the bags into bricks that can withstand over six tons of pressure. This is especially valuable in India, where they have to rebuild their clay-brick houses every year after the rainy season erodes them down to nothing.
But after newspapers and plastic bags, things get a little more gross. A company called Knowaste turns diapers – and no, not clean ones – into roof tiles. First, they collect dirty diapers from the collection bins they’ve set up at hundreds of hospitals, daycare centers, and nursing homes, then they wash them, cook them down to sludge, separate the plastic from the, ahem, organic material, and then fire that plastic into new forms. (They don’t mention what they do with the organic sludge, and I don’t want to know.)
You may think it doesn’t get any more squirm-inducing than a roof made of dirty diapers, but what about walls made of blood? A British architect named Jack Munro has perfected a process that turns the blood of cattle into bricks. Munro points out that slaughterhouses produce a massive amount of blood – a single cow contains eight gallons – that is currently going to waste. Munro mixes the harvested blood with sand and an antibacterial agent, and then bakes them; the resulting blood brick is as strong as a clay one, though it’s also 1000% creepier.
Of course, cubes of dried blood probably don’t retain heat very well; you’ll need insulation. What’s the perfect insulation for a house made of blood, diapers, and old newspapers? How about mold? Not the toxic black mold your aunt is always sending you email forwards about, but a more benevolent fungus called mycelium. Mycelium is a kind of mushroom that grows on rotting wood, and it turns out it retains heat as well as the environmentally dicey polystyrene that’s currently used for most insulation. After you plant its spores inside a wall, the fungus quickly (and literally) mushrooms to fill the space, at which point its growth is stopped using a heat ray. I guess living inside a big dead mushroom would get less disturbing once those super-low winter heating bills started rolling in, but still. Like the rest of the innovations in this article, it makes me simultaneously more hopeful for the future, and kinda grossed out by it.