Food waste has already been transformed into biobased materials applicable in the automotive and construction sectors. Credit: Rebecca Murphey.

  • Tungsteno

Organic waste: a new construction material

ISABEL RUBIO | Tungsteno

Each citizen of the European Union produces an average of 475 kilograms of garbage per year, according to data published by Statista, and the total amount of waste generated in this region amounted to two billion tons in 2014. Proper management of this waste is key to reducing its negative impact on the environment and society. Therefore, more and more initiatives are emerging to transform garbage into materials with a new useful life, for example, in the field of construction.

This is the case for organic waste. One third of the total food produced in the world for human consumption ends up in the rubbish, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which translates into 1.3 billion tons of food per year. The Aragonese technology centre Aitiip is one of the entities that is attempting to fight against this loss. Aitiip is coordinating the European project BARBARA, which aims to develop new biobased materials from food waste applicable in industrial sectors such as automotive and construction.

Under this initiative, which has a budget of 2.7 million euros and is financed by the EU, the research centre seeks to produce prototypes such as door handles, car dashboards and beam connectors from fruit and vegetable waste such as carrots, almonds, pomegranates or corn. The materials, created through advanced techniques of 3D printing and bioplastics, will have innovative properties such as thermal resistance, aesthetic improvements, pleasant textures or personalised fragrances.

Frente al MoMA PS21 en Long Island City (Nueva York) se alza la torre Mushroom, la más alta del mundo construida a partir de hongos. Credit: Creators.

Biocomposites in construction

Some of the organic waste that has traditionally been dumped in landfills or sent to composting or incinerating plants, is now being used in the construction sector, as outlined in the report The Urban Bio-Loop: Growing, Making and Regenerating developed by Arup. This design, planning and engineering consultancy firm has participated in projects that demonstrate some of the possibilities. SolarLeaf, for example, is the first system of building facades in the world that cultivates microalgae and generates heat and biomass. Arup also contributed to the construction in 2014 of the Mushroom brick tower, the first example of a structure —albeit temporary— constructed using fungi as the base material, and in the manufacture of BioBuild, the world’s first self-supporting facade panel made of biocomposite materials.

Other examples include using peanut shells to make low-cost and moisture-resistant materials useful for floors, ceilings, walls or furniture, or employing the fruits and leaves of banana plants to obtain durable textiles, useful, for example, in the production of carpets. Even potato peelings can be washed, pressed and dried to create a lightweight material that is fire resistant, thermally insulating and acoustically absorbent.

War against waste has reached governments and companies, which seek to reduce their use and promote their recycling in new materials. Credit: Bas Emmen.

Management of inorganic waste

But much remains to be done. In addition to organic waste, inorganic waste can also be used to create building materials. The development of new production techniques can help in the management of these wastes. For example, steel production normally consumes large amounts of coke or other types of coal, which has a significant environmental impact.

Indian researcher Veena Sahajwalla found a solution in 2005: "green steel". He developed a manufacturing method that uses recyclable waste such as rubber and plastic to replace carbon and thus reduce CO2 emissions. The large international steel producer Liberty uses this technique, known as Polymer Injection Technology, and manufactures steel from old car tires. The ultimate goal of all these initiatives is to move away from the throw-away mentality, because if all our waste were reused, the concept of garbage would disappear.

The management of inorganic waste, therefore, has become another of the great challenges for governments. In fact, before becoming garbage, waste was raw materials in which the extraction processes invested large amounts of energy and water. The construction sector consumes a considerable amount of raw materials. In 2014, this industry consumed about 60% of the raw materials available in the United Kingdom overall, according to PBC Today, a website specialised in construction news. The same sector generated around 30% of the total waste produced in the European Union, as explained by the European Commission.

The problem of plastic is an example of these challenges. More and more governments are adopting measures to combat this scourge. The European Parliament has approved a ban on the sale of single use plastics including straws, plates, cotton buds and cutlery. In addition, multiple countries, including Spain, are considering banning plastic bags. There are also fashion firms helping with the problem by collecting and reusing bottles and other plastic products from the sea. For example, Sea2See manufactures eyeglass frames from ocean plastic and Ecoalf creates garments. Other companies are involved in transforming rubbish into energy or even art.

What is clear is that overpopulation and consumerism have increased the amount of garbage generated by humans in recent decades, especially in developed countries. The inefficient handling of such waste and the pollution that this entails is a threat to the planet. Finding solutions and giving this rubbish a new life is a major challenge in the 21st century.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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