Trash cities

Cities are quite literally built on top of their own wastes; over time, as structures are demolished and rebuilt, roads resurfaced time and again, and new buildings constructed, the urban surface literally rises up, meaning that very old cities like London contain beneath their surface a rich archaeology of their own compacted detritus – a ‘ruins memory’ in the evocative words of Rebecca Solnit.

Workers atop the 100 foot tall Dhapa dumping ground (landfill), Dhapa, Kolkata, India. Dhapa is a large industrial zone that processes most of Kolkata’s garbage and recycling.

In the contemporary period of consumer capitalism, wastes have proliferated to such an extent that some informal communities are quite literally built on them, as in the ‘garbage slums’ of Quarantina outside Beirut, Hillat Kusha outside Khartoum, Santa Cruz in Mexico City, and the Dhapa dump on the outskirts of Kolkata. These infamous places flag up not only the desperate plight of some of the world’s poorest urban citizens, but also the unimaginable quantities of waste being produced by cities across the world today: around 1.3 billion tonnes a year, rising to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. Whilst a push towards recycling from the 1980s onwards has dominated urban policy in the West, often leading to a sense of complacency about the larger effects of unbridled capitalist consumption, vast heaps of garbage proliferate in informal communities where municipal or private disposal is at best only removing part of the accumulating wastes. Indeed, despite widespread recycling, much of the waste produced by the affluent (particularly hazardous e-waste) ends up in these poorer communities, with the 34 wealthiest nations producing more solid waste than the other 164 combined.

United Bottle, a plastic container that is designed to be reused as a building material.

The growing problem of finding suitable landfill sites for urban wastes has led some architects to develop ways of incorporating the latter into buildings, in line with the logic of a future production based on a completely closed resource cycle put forward by such organisations as the Zero Waste International Alliance and the MacArthur Foundation. As documented in the book Building from Wastes, these design strategies are highly varied and encompass five principal methods: first, densifying waste materials using a garbage press to compact it into building blocks; second, processing waste into new materials such as tiles, bricks or panels; third, transforming the molecular state of waste and mixing it with other components, an example being Nappy Roofing made from recycled sanitary products; fourth, creating products that are never thrown away, such as the United Bottle project that can be reused as a building component; and, fifth, harnessing elements of the process of decay to generate ‘growing’ architectures, such as Biorock (discussed in a earlier post here), bacteria-based self-healing concrete, and Mycofoam.

Evocative’s myco-boards – biofabricated wood for use as a building material.

Architect and entrepreneur Mitchell Joachim has taken this approach a step further in proposing the construction of entire skyscrapers in New York out of the city’s waste materials in his practice Terreform ONE’s Rapid Re(f)use project. As Joachim has stated, Manhattan’s inhabitants current discard enough paper products to fill a volume the size of the Empire State Building every two weeks; Rapid Re(f)use would collect this material and, with the assistance of automated 3D printers, quickly process it into the building blocks of new skyscrapers. These autonomous building machines would be based on existing techniques used in industrial waste compaction; but they also derive from a more unlikely source, namely the robotic trash collectors seen in the Disney/Pixar animated film Wall*E (2008).

Mitchell Joachim, Rapid Re(f)use project – a skyscraper made from compacted wastes.

In the film, a future Earth has been completely abandoned by its human population, the result of its decimation by the wastes produced by a voracious consumerism that has relocated to space colonies. In the future city depicted in the film – probably New York – the eponymous Wall*E (a Waste Allocation Load Litter Earth class robot) is left alone to collect and compact the vast quantities of waste left behind which have rendered the city, and presumably the world beyond, uninhabitable. As well as collecting certain discarded materials that appeal to the robot’s anthropocentric nostalgia and its desire to collect and organise, Wall*E builds new skyscrapers out of the blocks of compacted waste, in effect creating a new skyline for the city as its former skyscrapers succumb to the processes of decay.

Still from Wall*E (2008) showing skyscrapers made from compacted wastes

As Joachim explained, the film was released at the same time as he was conceiving of his Rapid Re(f)use project and that it ‘profoundly infused the research agenda’ of his design team. Yet, in proposing a project that imagines the future city as one ‘without an [exhaust] tail pipe’, or the zero-waste closed cycle envisaged by the MacArthur Foundation, Joachim sidesteps the principal message of Wall*E, namely, that unbridled consumerism may not be able to contain its wastes in the future, that the longed-for closed cycle is in fact a capitalist illusion. As any physicist will tell you, there is no such thing as a perfect exchange of energy; something is always lost as waste in this process. Perhaps, if we are to incorporate waste products into the architecture of the future, then it should also draw attention to the problematic status of the waste products themselves, namely, as the products of a fundamentally unsustainable ideology of accumulation that is predicated on creating wastes that need not exist in the first place.

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