Putting Waste Materials to Work Trash Houses

Since real estate is in the dumps, should builders go to the dump to get a leg up on cheap, sustainable building materials? Many people participate in using salvaged building materials or crafting makeshift housing out of things usually discarded. Some creative people have gone a step further and discovered ways to build sturdy houses out of recycled paper, beer cans, plastic, tires, picture frames, license plates, and even umbrella spokes.

Historically, societies have built homes for the average person primarily out of cheap and easily obtainable materials such as hardwood, adobe or clay bricks, sod, animal skins, ice blocks, bamboo, thatch, and paper. In current societies that emphasize consumption of beverages in aluminum and plastic and that habitually discard anything that has been used once or that is imperfect, garbage dumps and recycling centers are sources of very cheap and usable building materials. Used vehicle tires pile up at the rate of 242 million per year, and only 22% are recycled or burned to create energy (enotes.com). As a society we keep going down the path paved by the ideas that time is money, the labor force should be reduced whenever possible, and anything that takes time to sort and repurpose is wasting time and labor.

However, some have seen the irrationality of these ideas and have reconsidered the value of what gets thrown away today. In a world that is increasingly concerned with keeping oil production up, it seems ridiculous to treat products made and transported with petroleum as disposable. Labor intensive building methods still make sense in less wealthy parts of the world, and originality of design can be an intrinsic reward to the laborer and the house’s resident. Three of these trash house builders have gained distinction: Dan Phillips, building in Huntington, Texas; Doug Eichelberger, a Colorado architect; and Michael Reynolds, also known as the ‘Garbage Warrior.’ All these men strive to build affordable housing with a small energy footprint for low-income or homeless people.

Michael Reynold’s signature building materials are old tires filled with tamped down mud. He also uses empty beer cans and soda bottles, creating earthquake resistant houses he calls earthships with “surprisingly pleasing aesthetics.” His workers are always on the look out for useful discarded materials such as household appliances whose baked enamel surfaces are very durable and helpful in water collection systems. He claims “studies show that an earthship style home can last a thousand years.” Those who would like a taste of living in one of his earthships can rent one in Taos, NM (Ford).

Dan Phillips, a self-taught builder who has had many other careers, salvages items like picture frames to create stylistically distinctive houses. Some of his houses have roofs of license plates and windows of crystal platters. “Eighty percent of his materials are salvaged from other construction projects, hauled out of trash heaps, or just picked up from the side of the road.” By using wood scraps to make strong grids, he avoids the standardized look of normal construction based on 2 x 4 and 4 x 8 pieces of lumber. His mantra for design is “repetition creates pattern.” One obvious problem with this kind of building is whether it will conform to building codes. Phillips has developed a network of local engineers, and tradesmen to help him test his construction methods to be sure they meet code requirements (Murphy).

Doug Eichelberger relies on inexpensive bales of scrap plastic for foundation blocks and baled paper for constructing walls. The major cost of his construction is labor and transportation. Using plastic bales in the developing world makes sense because labor is cheaper there, and people are already transporting huge amounts of recyclable plastic by bicycle. Although plastic bales are weaker than bricks and mortar, Eichelberger thinks that with “more compaction and investigative testing, plastic bales’ strength could surpass that of straw bales” (greenbuilding elements.com). Straw bales are a popular, inexpensive, sustainable material for houses, but are not classified as “garbage.”

In order to save on materials and their transportation, builders in Enschede, Netherlands used GoogleEarth to find abandoned building sites within a nine mile radius of their site. The resulting house, of fairly standard appearance with large windows and walls of wedged together slices of wood scraps, uses 60% salvaged material in the exterior and 90% in the interior, including using umbrella spokes in lighting fixtures (Hannaford). Another sensible salvage effort used 600,000 lbs. of concrete and steel waste left over from the “Big Dig” project in Boston, also known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project. The “concrete, metal, and glass home . . . features steel beams and girders” (charlesandhudson.com).

These builders also care about providing housing for low-income and homeless people. Reynolds and Eichelberger have contributed to efforts to built disaster-relief housing internationally. In areas where building supplies are not available but garbage is, plastic bales may be the sturdiest material. Reynolds’s materials of dirt and tires are also readily available and require little expertise or tools for construction. His company offers workshops for people wanting to learn how to build earthships. Phillips started his construction company, Phoenix Commotion, specifically to aid low-income buyers and keep building materials out of the landfill. He is disappointed that some of his houses bought by low-income families have gone into foreclosure, but they appeal to middle-class buyers looking for energy efficiency.

The goal of energy efficiency and independence from the power grid is a recurring theme among trash house builders. Reynolds has worked for 35 years to develop communities that use little non-renewable power. He calls his approach “biotecture,” and his company, Earthship Biotecture has built houses around the world. His houses get electricity from sun and wind and water from rain and snowmelt. Water is used three times before it exits the house. Passive solar energy, made available by careful positioning of the house in relationship to the sun and trees, also heats the houses. Earth-birming techniques provide insulation from cold and hot weather. Sewage can be treated on site with composting toilets. To give households independence from a food production system that relies on high energy consumption to transport and refrigerate food, his houses offer ways to grow food inside and outside (earthship.com). Eichelberger says that the insulation ability of the plastic bales he uses can be improved by putting stucco on the interior and exterior sides of the bales and the same technique can be employed with tires and dirt to give the walls better insulation (greenbuildingelements.com).

Phillips has paved the way for increased respectability for garbage-picking building supplies. In 2004, he established a warehouse in Huntsville to store discarded building materials. This saves builders and homeowners a trip to the landfill and tipping fees. The materials are available only to charitable groups or low-income housing builders. Other cities have followed this model which reduces what goes into the landfill and stores the materials more carefully for future use (Murphy). Reynolds describes another sign that trash houses are gaining esteem: he has less trouble getting building permits for earthships (Ford).

The idea of building sustainable houses out of trash has been called “radical”, but in the coming years we may come to think of throwing lumber, bricks, drywall, etc., into the dump as an unthinkable luxury. As Reynolds commented on having his career featured in a documentary, “[It is] gratifying to be recognized for doing something reasonable” (Ford). How long will it be before it makes sense to the average American to see worn auto tires that now litter alleys and parks as desirable building materials for new construction in the U.S.? When will every community have a warehouse for salvaged construction materials? The movement to see trash as the new “bargain basement” for construction will be an important milestone in improving energy efficiency of housing and slowing the retirement of landfills.


Hannaford, Kat. “Architects Salvaged This House’s Building Materials Using Google Earth.” gizmodo Feb. 1, 2011, 12:40 p.m.




Ford, Arielle. “‘Garbage Warrior’ Turns Trash into Green-built Houses.” http://life.gaiam.com/article/garbage-warrior-turns-trash-green-built-houses

Trash House

Murphy, Kate. “One Man’s Trash.” www.nytimes.com/2009/09/03/garden/    03recycle.html