Build Your House From Recycled Materials

Alternative architect Martin Pawley teaches students to recycle disposable containers and packages into important building materials.
By Martin E. Pawley
January/February 1979
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Disposable containers and packages make surprisingly useful building materials! By recycling these cylindrical, metal cans into your construction project, you could be using a material that can withstand more vertical pressure than a concrete block. 

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While most of us agree products in disposable containers are wasteful, there are measures we should consider while we wait for lawmakers to ban them.

Disposable containers and packages make surprisingly useful building materials! This "trash" is often remarkably strong (after all, it has to be shipped around the country without damage), and — best of all — disposable containers are free to collect. You can even pick them up at recycling centers.

It seems to me, after some work in the field, that the American people can retrieve and make good use of the six million tons of steel, one hundred million tons of glass, and one million tons of aluminum that finds its way into landfills every year.

You see, all these containers and packages have some usable strength and — after their contents are gone — don't cost anything. Some, in fact, are high-grade construction material by many standards. Cans, for instance, are usually made of either steel or aluminum; metals that can provide either structural strength or great durability. Glass bottles are enormously strong, too, and have been used in construction ever since they were first machine produced. In Rhyolite, Nevada, for example, there is a bottle house that was built 66 years ago. In New Zealand, there is a complete bottle motel!

One well-known disposable bottle, the 48-ounce Coca-Cola "Crowd Pleaser", is so strong that 20 of these bottles successfully resisted vertical pressures of 10,000 pounds during tests that I carried out at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute a couple of years ago (compare that to the approximate 1,000-pound resistance capability of concrete blocks used in construction).

In 1976, my students and I built a small house at Rensselaer, New York out of recycled materials. The frame was made from cardboard tubes found at the center of rolls of the same kind of paper MOTHER EARTH NEWS is printed on. The roof was covered with tiles made from waste neoprene rubber and the walls were constructed of recycled, institutional-sized steel cans.

Recycled materials can be the cornerstone of a whole new style of construction . . . and pioneer waste builders are just beginning to explore the potential of these recyclable resources.

So, until sensible laws are passed that ban disposable containers (and for a good time after these regulations go into effect . . . after all, there's no shortage of discarded containers around) "garbage builders" can continue to explore the possibilities of alternative architecture made from recycled materials. We will keep the countryside cleaner while we’re at it!

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