How to use rubbish in cob building and more.
There are so many facets to the “problem” of trash: building with it, reusing it, what about recycling? How to deal with garbage when you’re off-grid in nature? How to reduce it? Because heck, as a species we have a real problem with the stuff. As with all these environmental issues we also have piles of judgement that tower far higher than the actual garbage dumps themselves. It’s unhelpful because there’s no simple answer (other than stop buying stuff) and many many subtleties to consider.
Here’s what I’m doing with my rubbish. Roll on the judgement:) It’s complex, so stay alert.
1. Reuse/Recycle - Welcome to the Trashure Bin
We all know recycling isn’t the great eco-saviour it was supposed to be, as a lot of it ends up transported across the world to be dumped in another country. We also all know it would be better to reuse stuff. But how exactly can you manage that sensibly without your house turning into something you might see on Hoarders?
Here’s how I do it.
I have two bins where I shove everything that I could ever possibly reuse, this includes jars, bottles, plastic containers, tins, sacks, plant pots, netting, blah-de-blah. I can’t tell you how many times I dip into those bins, and how often they save me buying something. Need something to put those nails and screws in? Go to the trashure bin. Need a water pot for the hens? Look in the trashure bin. Need a food container? You guessed it, I go to the trashure bin.
How I keep the trashure in check
We’ve all seen those reports of someone lost in their hoarding habit, with sheds and rooms overflowing with stuff they’ll never use. It’s unhealthy and can end up polluting your beautiful land. So how do I stop my trashure from taking over?
Once the trashure bin is full, then it is time for stage two. I reuse an old sandbag and fill it with the least desirable bits of trashure. Those bits go to the recycling. I try to choose glass and tin because I know they have a much better chance of being recycled. I usually need to do this once every two months. No, it’s not perfect. Please show me something that is. Having said that, I'm always ready to improve, and the building with rubbish ideas at the end of this article are where I'd start.
Beware: While trash can be treasure, you might want to erect some defense against other guilt-ridden consumers who will be itching to offload their crap onto you like you're some local version of China. If you're like me you'll often be too quick to say yes, and then be stuck with something that pollutes your land. Be discerning with what you take from other people or your home ends up looking like a landfill site.
2. Compost it
If it’s food or organic, then obviously it goes on the compost heap.
3. Burn it
This is the most controversial of the lot. I use a wood burner to heat my home so I burn all old papers and cardboard in it (actually they are my firelighters). My rubbish may as well keep me warm after all. But here’s the thing that causes the controversy: I also burn small bits of plastic. Huh? WHAT? Oh, the moral outrage! Yes... I shall roll up my sleeves on this one, because urbanite eco-purists haven’t got a flaming clue if you ask me.
If there are any tiny plastic pieces that I think will cause an animal harm, such as those stupid bits of plastic they tie stuff up with, or a bit of sellotape, or the scraps from a disintegrated plastic bag, namely anything an animal might swallow, I burn those. And I feel good about that decision. In my opinion the “toxic” gas caused by a finger’s worth of plastic a fortnight is a lot less harmful in the air than it is in solid form in multiple animals’ stomachs.
4. Build with it
One of my favourites of course. I reuse a lot of rubbish in building. Glass bottles and jars are the obvious one. I’ve used them all over my building work, creating windows in the chicken coop or bottle walls.
Kristen Krash of Sueño de Vida in Ecuador said she stuck lots of trash into the cob walls of her buildings. If you are remote it can be a real pain trying to get rid of rubbish, so it’s a fantastic plan. You can actually embed it into your cob work and make walls out of the stuff.
Here’s how Kristen uses rubbish in cob walls:
1. Stuff all the small pieces (bottle caps, wrappers, bags etc) into plastic bottles.
2. Then on top of the wall foundation (usually mortared stones) she lays a row of stuffed bottles. Then, a layer of cob, then more bottles, then cob.
3. She lets each double layer set up for a day in between to stabilise. "It's just like earthship walls, except with cob instead of cement,” she says, and adds that she also once worked on a cob house where the builder put an entire broken TV set into the wall.
Please note: You do need to pay attention to how you're impacting the structural integrity of your cob walls when using rubbish in them. Kristen used most of her rubbish in non-supporting walls.
What did I do with the broken tiles from my roof? I used them as drainage and terracing.
Old cupboards, old doors, old windows etc can all be upcycled into beauty, as Dianne Gungor and Bismil have shown in their work.
Ah well this is something most rural folk can feel good about. Compared to anyone working the 9-5 or participating in “society,” we off-gridsters don’t usually own big wardrobes. And everything is used until it basically doesn’t hold together anymore. Once it doesn’t hold together, we then cut it up and use it as cleaning cloths, rags, animal beds, etc etc. I can’t remember when I last threw out clothes other than shoes.
Reduce your shopping (forage, plunder, re-use, upcycle)
Obviously the best way to reduce your rubbish footprint (and your off-grid headache of getting rid of rubbish) is to stop buying stuff. Really, there isn’t such a thing as an eco-product. If it had to be made in a factory somewhere and/or transported, it’s not eco, so stop kidding yourself. If you live in the country this is so much easier. Every time you forage something be it hay, stones, wood, or clay, you’ve saved rubbish.
The worst offender? Get ready to be surprised...
The worst offenders, which are never discussed, are building materials. Even a natural builder like me who refuses to buy anything and builds out of mud and lime and anything she can find laying around, even so, my biggest non-recyclable rubbish contribution is building materials. Linseed oil tins, rollers, paint brushes, glue cartridges.
The other worst offender is of course plastic packaging. You can do a lot more about this one though by shopping in local markets, growing your own food, and not engaging in processed foods. Who wants to eat that plastic packaged poison anyway?
Other creative ideas from The Mud Home Facebook Group:
“I would turn it into art for your home and or garden. I think it's something to study and ponder at night on how to make creative garden totems, fun wall art, flying stuff, steampunk art,” says artist Daphne Roberts, who turns everything into beauty.
“Old cement goes in my own little landfill, trying to build up an area,” says Chris Mack in Ecuador. In fact, if you have a piece of land this is probably the most honest way of dealing with it. You’ll see how much crap you have, and you can always plunder it later.
“Cement renders and pointing can be crushed and used as aggregate in hydrated lime mortar, render, and plaster. And pulverized brick (resulting from damage caused by said cement renders and pointing) can be repurposed as pozzolan,” explains Claude, who’s naturally renovating an old house.
Related link - Dianne and Bismil’s upcycled bathroom:
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