• Drew Wilson

DOWN TO EARTH: BUILDING OPPORTUNITIES FROM WASTE

Here’s a riddle for you. What do you get when you combine 70% soil, 25% mixed builders waste and 5% cement? The answer: a HOUSE!


I recently caught up with USE-IT’s founder to hear how our sector is throwing away opportunities for sustainable construction every day. If you’ve never considered construction waste as a beautiful resource, you’ve never met Chris Whyte from USE-IT. Chris and his team were the masterminds behind RAMBRICK - USE-IT’s solution to South Africa’s most pressing challenges including landfill waste, housing shortages, unemployment and climate change.


Stepping into a cool building on a typical hot summer’s day in Durban is always a treat. Most times it’s the air conditioning we can thank but not at USE-IT’s waste beneficiation facility in Hammarsdale, KwaZulu Natal. Built using the NPO’s flagship RAMBRICK compressed earth blocks, the building is naturally thermally-efficient keeping it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It’s waterproof, bulletproof, insect and mould resistant – and its walls are much stronger than those made with traditional cement or clay bricks. We’re blown away by these incredible bricks, especially because they’re made almost entirely from construction waste!


Making way for urban development always means removing tonnes of soil, stone and rubble. Drive past any construction project and you’ll see piles of earth dotted around. We don’t often think of soil as waste but that’s just how it’s treated. It’s loaded up, driven miles and dumped in expensive landfill sites. Those same projects also source sand and aggregate from rivers across the country to use as a building resource, often to the detriment of our waterways and biodiversity. Isn’t it time to rethink our conventional building processes and materials?


I chatted to Chris over coffee about waste beneficiation and opportunities available to the market. It soon became apparent that Chris could keep you intrigued for hours on this subject – he really is passionate about making a difference…


Drew (D): Chris, you talk about unlocking opportunities with waste. What’s that all about?

Chris (C): “USE-IT is a Durban-based section 21 company that identifies waste beneficiation opportunities in eThekwini to divert waste from landfill and create employment in the green economy. Basically whatever is going to landfill can - and should - be given another life.


“Our initiatives all turn waste into something useful and in the process we can create jobs, build sustainable infrastructure and reduce carbon footprint. Our proposed pilot projects alone would contribute 1.5% to the country’s GDP if they were to be implemented nationally!


“For the biggest impact, we started out by looking at ways to reuse construction waste. Most people think landfills are filling up with packaging, they’re aren’t. Of course it’s a huge problem (25%) but construction soil and rubble is even more so. In South Africa, 40% of what we’re sending to landfill is straight from the building sector.


“Without sounding dramatic, we are truly at a crisis point in South Africa. Consider Durban’s landfill situation: the Springfield facility (the biggest in South Africa) is already closed, while Marianhill is in its last few months of operation. That leaves only Buffelsdraai in Verulam on the North Coast! It’s short-sighted not to consider how this waste can be used more meaningfully.”


D: Besides diverting waste destined for landfill, what are the benefits of using RAMBRICK to developers?

C: “The RAMBRICK offers a high-quality, cost effective and environmentally-friendly building solution. These innovative building blocks are made by compressing waste soils and recycled builders rubble in a purpose-built mechanical unit, which churns out a brick every 12 seconds!


“The idea is that large-scale developers will be able to utilise a unit onsite to make bricks for their project using the soil and rubble they’ve dug up. Instead of paying to remove, transport and dump this waste, they now have the opportunity to create their own building materials which can be used within the project at a fraction of the cost. Our compressed earth blocks are 20% cheaper than conventional cement blocks!


“With RAMBRICKS the actual building process is faster and simpler too. There’s no need to use traditional cement mortar to bond the bricks, instead quick-drying and super strong soil slurry does the trick. It’s essentially the same material used to manufacture the blocks themselves but literally poured in liquid form with a jug!”


D: How do you see communities getting involved in your projects?

C: “People are at the centre of everything we’re trying to achieve. This is why our new waste beneficiation facility is so important. We’re on a mission to show that industry can successfully be integrated into communities.


“The purpose of our Hammarsdale facility is two-fold. Firstly, it is a RAMBRICK showcase and an example of what can be achieved when using unconventional building materials - like crockery, for example. You wouldn’t know by looking at them but one of our earlier production runs of 118,000 bricks used 760,000 (230 tonnes) recalled ceramic mugs from Unilever! Our centre has been built primarily using RAMBRICKS and we keep our compressed block making equipment on site for training.


“Secondly, our facility is a hub for the community to process waste. We have ten ‘incubators’ or development rooms available for budding entrepreneurs and innovators who want to turn waste into opportunities to earn money, learn skills and create employment.

“The main processing areas will initially focus on plastics, wooden pallets and glass, and this will grow over time to create designated areas for each of these projects. We hope to facilitate a composting drive soon too; this will support a community-led farming project dedicated to teaching women in the surrounding area how to grow and sell their own produce. It will also get schoolchildren involved in the propagation and sale of seedlings to benefit themselves and their schools.


“Our aim is not for USE-IT to race ahead with its own initiatives but to attract community and private-sector ventures into the area. We’re out to create enterprises, not isolated eco housing estates!”


We hope the projects we’re involved in will begin to consider unconventional building materials and processes like those on offer from USE-IT. I firmly believe our sector can be a force for change!


If you’re ready to do things differently, give us a call to find out why we’re the best partner for your next civil engineering project.


RAMBRICK is Agrément certified, South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) compliant and boasts a five star EcoStandard rating. USE-IT is registered with the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) and the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC). For more information, visit www.rambrick.co.za or www.use-it.co.za.






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