Changing the way we view disaster waste


When a large disaster strikes an urban area it is critical for those affected that there is an efficient and timely restoration and recovery process. One aspect of this is to remove housing that is beyond repair or on hazardous land.

The quickest (and probably cheapest) way to do this is by using heavy machinery like diggers and bulldozers to demolish the house and dump the materials at a waste disposal site. Problematically, disasters often create an influx of waste far exceeding the community’s normal waste generation. In Christchurch, New Zealand, a series of earthquakes have led to a large quantity of building debris. It is estimated that if all unprocessed waste was sent to landfill it would be the equivalent to 2o years of waste for the city.

For this reason multiple disposal sites have been needed to be established and some waste recycling is being undertaken.

House being demolished (By Fought70 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although using heavy machinery to demolish houses is most likely the quickest cheapest option, it assumes that the materials that make up the house such as the doors, roof, and kitchen sink are no longer of any value after the decision is made to no longer inhabit the house. Given the problems with disposing of large quantities of waste this begs the question — can we reuse the ‘waste‘ after disaster?

An exhibition at Canterbury Museum aims to show that there is value to the materials from condemned houses, and that the materials that make up a house can be reused for a variety of purposes. The Whole House Reuse (WHR) project displays what can be made from materials salvaged from a house that had been condemned due to the Canterbury Earthquake sequence of 2010–11.

WHR also hopes to visually quantify the irreplaceable material being otherwise lost in the often hasty demolition process, and spark realistic discussion on the pros and cons of deconstruction and demolition.

The Whole House Reuse website states:

Over 250 people from around New Zealand and the world have invented ways of reusing these resources and the result is a huge collection of objects from a delicately carved taonga puoro by master carver Brian Flintoff, to a finely crafted backyard studio by artist Nic Moon and architectural designer Lyn Russell.

The process broadly involved three stages:

  1. Deconstruction: Professional salvage crew deconstructed the house over 9 days (click here for a short documentary). Care had to be taken to not damage valuable materials and to inspect wood for borer and check for asbestos (some was found in the flooring)
  2. Design: Materials were carefully cataloged and invitations for people around the country to submit designs for the project
  3. Reuse: Participants receive materials and begin the process to reshaping the materials into new resources

Below I share some of photos I took of the exhibition (sorry phone quality!).

A dog made from electrical wiring
A chair made from a door
Appropriate 3D Richter shelf.
A table with a rather appropriate looking ‘fault’ acting as the structural bracing
The left over material that could not be reused. Often borer infected wood, rusty nails…and asbestos!

Now of course there are logistical practicalities to deal with, and the above examples might not seem like they would be scalable after a disaster, but the point is that there is indeed value with reusing materials after disasters. As a society we must decide if viewing such materials as waste is the best course of action.

Burwood Resource Recovery Park (photo from Transwaste Canterbury)

In Christchurch about a quarter of all earthquake related debris is currently being taken to Burwood Resource Recovery Park, with an aim to recycle about 50% of the material received. This represents a relatively small proportion of all earthquake debris, but even this modest amount will take until 2017 (12–16 hrs/day, 6 days/week) to filter through. This amounts to over 5 years of work from start to finish.

A mammoth job indeed.

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