4 Alternative Building Materials That Can Also Help The Environment

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by Lilian Sue

We all know that if you want to build a usable structure, it’s going to involve hauling in things like wood, steel and concrete, and probably some people that know what the hell they’re doing so that it doesn’t collapse and horribly maim you and your loved ones. There are, however, some alternative materials that can be used to construct your own personal Taj Mahal that are just as good as their traditional counterparts, and also way friendlier to the planet.

Let’s take a look at a few of them ...


Concrete That’s Made Out Of Plastic

From water bottles to sporks and even a not-insignificant portion of the device you’re using to read this very article, we use something made out of plastic every single day. Which is fine, provided you completely ignore what it’s doing to the environment. Take the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example: It alone has some 1.8 trillion pieces of discarded plastic weighing in at some 80,000 tonnes. Which, if you are even slightly familiar with numbers, you’ll recognize as a lot of freaking garbage, just floating around in the ocean.

Obviously, the prevalence of plastic waste is a known issue -- but how do we tackle it? And furthermore, is there a practical way to repurpose it that doesn’t involve building full-sized replicas of the pyramids of Giza using two-liter bottles and Tic Tac containers?



Dude, you’re still not getting this.

As it turns out, yes. Researchers have demonstrated that plastic can be used as a substitute for at least a portion of the sand normally used in the production of concrete. They found that if they replaced around 10% of that sand with ground-up plastic, the resulting mix would be just about as strong as the regular stuff. And not only would this solution help reduce waste, it would also assist in alleviating the sand shortage problem that many parts of the world are experiencing.

This isn’t just laboratory hocus pocus, either. One Henry Miller, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Master of Architecture program, entered the Concrete Thinking for a Sustainable World competition and built a wall and a screen using blocks that were a mixture of cement, plastic, and some soil from brownfields. He apparently won first place in the “Component Category,” but we assume that’s only because the “Whoa, That’s Badass” category wasn’t a thing yet.

Insulate Your Home With Hemp

If you know anything about hemp, you’re likely already aware that it can be used to make paper, rope, and even clothes. What you probably didn’t know is that something called hempcrete can be used as a building material for your house. And we’re not talking about some thatched roof hut on a tropical island, either.




“So, what the hell is hempcrete?” you may be asking, while picturing some conspicuously green shack in your friend’s back yard with a “420 Friendly!” sign mostly covering the structure’s lone window. It’s actually more of an insulating material than it is an I-can-use-these-plants-to-build-a-skyscraper thing, though.

But still, it’s great at what it does. If you combine the core of the plant with lime and water, the result is something that actually performs better than traditional insulating materials like fiberglass or cement. It staves off things like insects and mold, handles moisture like a champ, and it’s remarkably fire-resistant. Basically, if insulation enthusiasts have insulation fantasies, they probably involve hempcrete.

Constructing With Cigarette Butts

If you’ve ever walked, well, anywhere, you’ve probably noticed cigarette butts all over the place. We don’t know exactly how many of them litter our sidewalks, yards, and roadways, but according to our research, we estimate that it’s somewhere around too damn many, you guys. Seriously, when “Efficient Cigarette Butt Cleanup” is listed as a required skill on a job posting for an amusement park employee, you know there’s a problem.

Of course, the big problem is that they take pretty much forever to break down, and they contain toxic chemicals that can leak into the environment. Sure, they seem like unassuming, small cottony things, but any time you start measuring anything in the trillions, it adds up.



And starts fires when you don’t empty your ashtray.

Enter Dr. Abbas Mohajerani from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. He found that you can actually turn that cigarette butt waste into bricks. Or at least, use it as a small component in brick-making. The butt part of the brick only amounts to about 1%, but according to our math, 1% of the total volume of a brick divided into “too damn many cigarette butts” equals way less pollution.

Plus, it takes less energy to produce the bricks when cigarette butts are involved – around half. Oh, and they also found you can basically do the same thing with asphalt.

Using Coal Ash To Create Cement

Burning coal is definitely a dirty business, what with coal ash leaving soot everywhere in the immediate vicinity. It also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury into the environment, which you may recognize as things we probably shouldn’t be pumping into the air on any sort of large scale.

But there is hope, because that fine-powdered fly ash can be used to create concrete and cement. Much like with hempcrete, you can mix it with lime and water to create a new compound that you can build stuff with. Specifically, it makes something similar to Portland cement, which is the most common type of cement used today. Hell, it’s so effective, they used the stuff in 1929 to help build the Hoover Dam.

It’s cost-effective, uses less water, can set faster, is resistant to cold, and has a number of other benefits. Plus, you know, there’s that whole “getting rid of the coal ash” thing.



Which, honestly, can be pretty annoying. Oh yeah, and harmful.

Granted, none of these are construction magic bullets, otherwise we’d all be using them exclusively right now. Still, we can’t help but imagine the day when we’re sitting in our cigarette butt brick home that’s insulated with hemp and nestled atop our plastic-and-coal-ash-infused concrete foundation while being powered by cow poop.

Like this article? Check out “5 Weird Alternative Uses For DNA” and “4 DIY Science Projects That Can Solve Everyday Household Problems”.

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