Trash to treasure: sustainable buildings for the poor

Few professionals would dispute the contention that in South Africa we are fighting a losing battle with regards to housing provision and solid waste management. With regard to the latter, work by Professor Ivan Turok and Jacqueline Borel-Saladin has shown that the housing situation in South Africa is getting worse, not better, given that between 2001 and 2011 the number of households living in informal settlements in the country’s metros grew by 126,502. With regard to municipal waste, in 2009/2010 South Africa spent in real terms R9.43 Billion on solid waste management. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to the total subsidy amount (based on the 2009 quantum) for 131, 665 houses. Clearly, if we are able to reduce the demand on our landfills, this would free a substantial amount of money to spend on more urgent social needs.

These two issues, solid waste management and housing, are rarely considered related. However, two projects in South Africa are starting to challenge this dogma. The first of these is the QPT Qala Phelang Tala in the Free State, a project funded by the government of Flanders and awarded to the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State. This project uses an innovative process to create rammed earth buildings, where scrap tyres are stacked on top of one another and filled with soil, and then compacted using a hammer. The outside shell of the tyres is then packed with ‘cob’ (soil, water and manure) and then plastered to finish the wall. To add light to the building, two glass bottles are joined and then incorporated into the structure as a light well.

Building a fence. Credit: QPT Qala Phelang Tala

Building a fence. Credit: QPT Qala Phelang Tala.

One of the many advantages of this building process is that it allows for a building with a high thermal performance to be built at a very low cost, given that the majority of materials used are ‘scrap.’ Over and above this, this project is driving a social implementation intervention by equipping unemployed men and women with the skills needed to build their own homes, and the project is already seeing previously unemployed volunteers being hired due to their newly acquired skills.

Recyclables 3

The walls for a rammed earth building seen before being packed with cob and plastered. Credit: QPT Qala Phelang Tala.

The project is operating both in rural and urban areas, with the urban examples being a number of houses being constructed in low-income townships of Bloemfontein, as well as a hub of arts, crafts and culture at the Lebone Village, Bloemfontein, which is also a safehaven for vulnerable children.

Another project pioneering the use of recycled materials for construction is Use-It, a non-profit company based in eThekwini. Use-It is primarily focused on maximizing waste from landfill and creating jobs by using building rubble to create compressed earth blocks. These blocks, while similar to conventional building materials in appearance, are 16% cheaper than hollow concrete blocks and 45% cheaper than clay brick, while offering superior thermal performance, says Chris Whyte, Use-It’s owner. In 2013/2014 this project created 84 direct jobs, and 68 indirect jobs, and has saved eThekwini the equivalent of R3,650,800 through recycling of waste that would otherwise have been stored in a landfill.

These two projects demonstrate the truth of the old saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and show that with innovative thinking we can simultaneously reduce the demand on landfills and empower the poor, taking us one large step forward to meeting the massive housing and settlement challenge facing South Africa.

See also this project from Nigeria, which is using plastic bottles, string, mud and cement to create low cost houses.


Stuart Denoon-Stevens is a professional planner, a junior lecturer at the University of the Free State, and a researcher focusing on municipal land management, with a particular emphasis on pro-poor approaches.

Main photo: A home built by QPT Qala Phelang Tala.Credit: QPT Qala Phelang Tala


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