Bricks made from Waste – New Value, New Life

From its mobilisation through dredging to the urban life it enables through its circulation, we see sand being metabolised and remade from its original form to a ‘second nature’ within the social world (Alexander and Reno, 2012: 1).

In this entry, we will look at how recycling intercedes in the transformation of sand from its “natural form” by substituting existing materials such as waste from ceramics and glass industries, rejected clay from traditional brick manufacturing and wastes from demolished buildings, to produce originals, taking the form of building bricks and household furniture, to a house that a young Rotterdam couple is now living in.

This idea began with Dutch startup, StoneCycling and here are examples of what they have produced:

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Aubergine Brick

Here’s an entire catalogue of StoneCycling’s WasteBasedBricks!

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Furniture made from waste


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Rotterdam couple’s house made completely from waste

Click here for the story behind this house:

From this, we see how waste is revalorised, afforded new value and new lives. However, reuse of materials is insufficient – the creation of new markets and the revaluing these products is an equally essential part of the process (Crang et al, 2012).

The appropriation of nature is not a one-way process and human beings, in turn, undergo a transformation. In other words, remaking remakes us (Alexander and Reno, 2012) and this transformation of urban society is evident in processes of recycling in the construction industry.

Firstly, in an industry that is typically risk-averse and profit-driven, with significant scepticism about building from waste, we have seen encouraging signs of willingness towards extra investment, a risk-taking mentality and new ways of living, building and designing for the environment.

Secondly, getting uncontaminated waste streams is a significant challenge. However, with discussions of a ‘building material passport’, a document detailing materials used in a building, the identification of reusable material is made possible even as the building reaches its end-of-life. Firms like StoneCycling are also developing agreements and connections with building owners and demolishing companies to incentivise strategic demolition over cheap demolition.

Demolition waste materials are revalued and reinserted into mainstream material flows, reducing the plunder of sand from its natural environment through the substitution of existing materials. The construction industry generates 65% of Dutch waste; a change of mentality to begin to perceive rubbish as not an endpoint but a fulcrum is key to rekindling its value (Crang et al, 2012).

Sand and sediment form the foundations of cities (literally). Every apartment block and skyscraper is made from concrete – the accretion of sand and gravel with cement. With unsustainable demands for construction sand, sand mining is causing environmental damage worldwide with fatal consequences on ecosystems.

You can read more about the damaging effects of sand mining here:

While it may be difficult to see beyond skyscapers and paved roads in our physical cities,

“Urbanization has swallowed the ‘city’ and the ‘countryside’, and places are now but one node in the hyper-networked and all-encompassing process of urbanization.” (Derickson, 2015)

The effect of sand mining on what might appear to be “far-flung” or “non-urban” areas is an issue we need to urgently think about in UPE, and recycling offers one way to begin.


These are some of the resources I used!

Alexander, C. and Reno, J. (2012) Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations, London, UK: Zed Books.

Derickson, K. D. (2015) ‘Urban geography I: Locating urban theory in the ‘urban age’’, Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 39, No. 5, 647 – 657.

Crang, M. Gregson, N., Ahamed, F. Ferdous, R. and Akhter, N. (2012) ‘Death, the Phoenix and Pandora: transforming things and values in Bangladesh’ in C. Alexander and J. Reno (eds) Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations, London, UK: Zed Books, 59 – 75.


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Plastic Bag Alchemy – “Object” or “Thing”?

Rotterdam-based research and design studio, ‘The New Raw’ has introduced a new public initiative ‘Print your City!’ looking to turn plastic waste into functional furniture. This alchemy of trash to treasure has produced the xxx bench (first outcome of the project). This is what it looks like!

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You can take a look at more of them here!

The bench is made from plastic pellets from processed municipal waste or flakes from ground up recycled products and then printed with a large scale 3-D printer.

Check out how it is made here!


Plastic follows a linear life cycle from production, to use, to disposal (most plastics end up in landfills where their short life cycles are essentially over). This project changes this trajectory by closing the loop, giving these plastics new use and function. The bench – taking the form of a double-sided rocking chair requiring users to find equilibrium or work together to rock each other – also makes a statement about cooperating to close the plastic loop.

I found that Ingold’s (2011) mental framework, of distinguishing between “object” and “thing”, a useful way to engage with the xxx bench. While an “object” is complete and unitary, a “thing” is a dynamic and organic gathering of materials (Ingold, 2011, Heidegger, 1971).

We tend to think of plastics as “objects” in complete, final and already-made forms, like plastic bottles, bags and disposable packaging, prioritising processes of consumption in this mental framework (Ingold, 2011). Further changes that these plastics undergo occur as part of phases of human consumption. As such, from an object-centred perspective, the making of the xxx bench is labelled as “recycling”.

However, if we perceive these plastics as “materials” and the dynamic gathering of plastics to form the xxx bench, as a “thing”, we are able to isolate the innate potential that plastic, as a material, possesses for further making and transformation. In a world of materials, things are always on the way to becoming something else and materials are substances-in-becoming (Ingold, 2011; Barad, 2003). Hence the xxx bench is not the product of recycling of plastic bags but a part of the life of the plastic in itself. When people engage with the xxx bench as a thing, they join its process of ongoing formation, rendering it its power to make a statement as thing (Ingold, 2011).

Perhaps the new way forward for “recycling” is to direct our attention to the perdure of materials rather than a fixation on their inertial forms as objects of our daily consumption. To this end, where do you see the future of disposed tin cans and electronic hardware?


I found this reading particularly useful: 

Ingold, T. (2011) ‘Towards an Ecology of Materials’, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 41, 427 – 442.

Ingold (2011) drew on this quite a bit:

Heidegger, M. (1971) Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper and Row.

And more 🙂

Barad, K. (2003) ‘Posthumanist performativity: towards an understanding of how matter comes to matter’, Signs, Vol. 28, 801 – 831.

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Dead Animals Tell Stories in Rotterdam

The anthropocentric bias in contemporary urban theory has long put humans as primary agents in cities. Yet, urban studies have increasing conceptualised cities as products of complex human and non-human exchanges (Hovorka, 2008). This has led to the rise of transspecies urban theory which moves beyond objectifying animals to recognising the interdependence of humans and animals and the importance of a focus on animals in making sense of human-environment relations.

Heterogeneous social encounters take place in the prosaic spaces of cities and not all actors are human. The Natural History Museum in Rotterdam is home to a collection called ‘Dead Animals with a Story’, a collection of animal carcasses and descriptions of how these animals came to their sticky ends. These stories reveal an interweaving of people, animals, machines and other elements that configure the plural spaces of cities (Whatmore, 1999).

Here are some of these stories:

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The deaths of these animals show how their relative powerlessness in human–animal relations (Philo and Wilbert, 2000). How humans think, feel, and talk about animals shape their socio-spatial practices towards them – the “domino sparrow” is an example of how animals are excluded from sites of human activity, punished for wreaking havoc and transgressing human spaces and boundaries (Philo, 1994).

At the same time, the exhibition displays a recognition of animals as influential actors fashioning the relationships and environments they inhabit. Examining how ‘McFlurry Hedgehog’ influenced McDonald’s to change its lid covers, reveals the significance of animals in shaping the lives of urban dwellers through peculiar human-nonhuman encounters (Whatmore, 1999). While ‘McFlurry Hedgehog’ may not inherently possess the agency to change McDonalds, its power manifests through connections and networks between media, environmentalists, and McDonald’s consumers, allowing it to become a player instead of an inert and passive thing (Dempsey, 2010).

While this exhibition suggests a potential embracing of living with rather than against nature in cities (Hovorka, 2008), human behaviour also reveals underlying values and attitudes towards animals. Human responses to animals are rooted in cultural beliefs (Wolch, 1996). The attitude of derision that the exhibition adopts – e.g. the slightly jocular treatment of ‘McFlurry Hedgehog’ (instead of pointing out the underlying problem of irresponsible trash management) – reveals how humans, firmly astride the apex of the revolutionary chain (Wolch, 1996), set animals as apart and inferior based on intelligence and character traits.

Even as transspecies urban theory highlights the intermingling of humans and animals in cities, animals and their fates are entrenched in inexorable power dynamics of revulsion, control, utilitarianism or compassion (Tuan, 1984). Animals continue to be used instrumentally for food, company or experimentation because of definitive ideas of animals as ‘other’ relative to ‘us’ both socially – in character trains and geographically – by fixing spaces they are allowed/not allowed to occupy (Philo and Wilbert, 2000).


Some conceptual, but very useful articles on ways to think about animals in cities 🙂

Dempsey, J. (2010) ‘Tracking grizzly bears in British Columbia’s Environmental Politics’, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 42, 1138 – 1156.

Hovorka, A. (2008) ‘Transpecies urban theory: chickens in an African city’, Cultural Geographies, Vol. 15, 95 – 117.

Philo, C. ‘Animals, geography and the city, notes on inclusions and exclusions’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 13, 655 – 681.

Philo, C. and Wilbert, C. (2000) Animal spaces, beastly places, new geographies of human–animal relations, London: Routledge.

Tuan, Y. F. (1984) Dominance and affection, the making of pets, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Whatmore, S. (1999) ‘Hybrid geographies: rethinking the “human” in human geography’, in D. Massey, J. Allen and P. Sarre (eds), Human Geography Today, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 24 – 39.

Wolch, J. (1996) ‘Zoopolis’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 7, No. 2, 21 – 47.

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Enevo and Rotterdam Cooperates to Transition to Smart Waste Management

In 2016, Rotterdam extended a Paper and Cardboard Waste project with Enevo, leading innovator in smart waste-management. This project sought to increase monitoring of waste containers and use of Enevo Smart-Plan software for optimised waste collection route-planning in Rotterdam.

This video provides an introduction to the project!


The multi-storey, residential apartments in Rotterdam utilises a central waste collection system. This places the onus of ensuring that the underground containers are emptied reliably on the municipality of Rotterdam. To encourage recycling, waste collection needs to be made convenient for citizens, necessitating an optimal number and placement of receptacles along with scheduled collections to ensure space in the recycling containers.

I found the use of Geel’s (2004) framework for transitions in socio-technical regimes and Van de Poel’s (2000) framework for examining external pressure, useful in crystallising Rotterdam’s transition to a smart waste-management system.

Geel (2004) identified three dimensions of socio-technical regimes: regulative, normative, and cognitive. I identified the existing mechanisms under each heading for Rotterdam’s case-study here:

  • Regulative – previous waste management system implemented by the government
  • Normative – the lifestyles, habits and technical systems that people are used to
  • Cognitive – core competencies of waste-management operators that turn into rigidities when operators are resistant to change

Regime transformation entails change in existing norms, regulations and beliefs that fall into these three categories (Geel, 2006).

External pressure from outsiders (definition: actors excluded from the community) are highly influential in these transitions (Van de Poel, 2000). In the case of Rotterdam, they fall into the Van de Poel’s (2000) categories of: (1) professional engineers who impart knowledge and design concepts, and (2) firms and entrepreneurs that develop technological novelties to match these concepts.

  1. Professional engineers introduce big data, analytics, and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to aid Rotterdam’s government in uncovering more efficient waste management and recycling practices
  2. Firm and entrepreneurs – Enevo and its smart waste-management solution for Rotterdam (illustrated below)
Enevo's Smart Waste Management Solution
Key aspects of Enevo’s smart waste management solution


Fill-level data collection, forecasting (with data analytics), cloud data sharing and efficient daily route planning


Driver route guidance via in-vehicle tablet
Driver route guidance via in-vehicle tablet

I hope the two frameworks were fruitful ways to explicate the mechanisms behind the cooperation between Rotterdam and Enevo!

I personally find that they are useful ways for understanding how rigidities and resistance to change stymie green transformations in the city. While technological solutions may be foreign and unfamiliar, they provide a propitious means to enhance the efficiency of urban metabolic flows of waste and recyclables. Using bodily metabolic processes that sustain human life to understand flows of waste underlying the everyday functioning of cities (Marvin and Medd, 2006), perhaps it is useful to think metaphorically of Enevo’s smart-plan software as akin to a pacemaker sending electric pulses to the human heart. I guess humans, and the cities we build alike, just need a little technological oomph sometimes.


For a more detailed understanding of the 2 models:

Geels, F. (2004) ‘From sectoral systems of innovation to sociotechnical systems: insights about dynamics and change from sociology and institutional theory’, Research Policy, Vol. 33, No. 6, 897 – 920.

Van de Poel, I. (2000) ‘On the role of outsiders in technical development’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, Vol. 12, No. 3, 383 – 397.

Other resources that helped me:

Geels, F. (2006) ‘The hygienic transition from cesspools to sewer systems (1840-1930): The dynamics of regime transformation’, Research Policy, Vol. 35, 1069 – 1082.

Marvin, S. and Medd, W. (2006) “Metabolisms of Obecity: Flows of Fat through Bodies, Cities and Sewers”, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 38, Issue 2, 137 – 149.

You can also read more about this project here:

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Innovative Green Spaces or the Commodification of Nature?

A bobbing forest was installed in the harbour of Rijnhaven to celebrate national tree day in 2014. By overcoming spatial constraints to invent a creative space for greenery in the city, Jeroen Evaraert intended to draw attention to sustainability in the city and the importance of greenery for city dwellers. The trees penetrate the monotony of the harbour with green space and look something like this:

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The installation consisted 20 elms planted on metal buoys recycled and repurposed from the North Sea. The buoy holds a basin with 500 litres of water that is slowly released to the elms and has to be replenished 3 – 4 times a year. The salty water was an initial problem for the floating forest but was overcome by the development of a proper irrigation system for the trees.

This project provides an innovative reinvention of the idea of green spaces in the city. While it is commonplace for trees to be constantly moved, stored and replanted in different places and innovative ways in cities, the investment, effort and media attention devoted to planting 20 floating elms raises important questions: Does the 1000km of car-driving in CO2 emissions that these trees compensate for annually even remotely justify the cost of planting them? Are they truly a sustainable future model for future parks and green spaces?

Urban forests are by no means naturally occurring and the production of urban forests is a deeply social process embedded in multifaceted power relations.

‘It is on the terrain of the urban that the accelerating metabolic transformation of nature becomes most visible, both in its physical form and its socioecological consequences.’ (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003: 907)

Cities have become centres for the production, exchange and consumption of natural environments as commodities (Lefebvre, 1991). Urban forests are marketised and commoditised (Harvey, 1989) because of their plethora of benefits and positive externalities to urban residents (Landry and Chakraborty, 2009), summarised in the picture below:


(obtained from

Marx (1990) explains that commodification of nature occurs when urban trees derive use-value because abstracted human labour is materialised in it. These urban trees are embodiments of abstracted human labour, as they are sedulously produced, engineered and managed to be planted within the urban built environment through extensive labour, knowledge and economic resources.

With its capability to improve urban quality of life, urban trees tend to be put in specific environments that deserve greater consideration. Where urban trees are allowed to grow and where they are carefully maintained or unwittingly neglected, is contingent on uneven processes of political economy instead of forest ecology (Heynen, 2003). For these elms, artists, designers, engineers and botanists control where they are planted and how they are grown and they continue to exist through consumption by other elite groups such as like-minded designers, contemporary environmental artists and tourists. While the ecological innovativeness and distinctive aesthetic of the elms is incontrovertible, they are symptomatic of uneven urban political processes that play out through the built environment.

P.S. My first thought when I saw the trees was that they appeared more like an unsettling and ominous predilection of global warming. Does anyone feel the same?


Some articles I thought you guys would find useful:

Harvey, D. (1989) The Urban Experience, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Heynen, N. (2003) ‘The Scalar Production of Injustice within the Urban Forest’, Antipode, Vol. 35, No. 5, 980 – 998.

Landry, S. and Chakraborty, J. (2009) ‘Street trees and equity: evaluating the spatial distribution of an urban amenity’, Environment and Planning, Vol. 41, 2651 – 2670.

Lefebvre, H (1991) The production of space, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital, Vol. 1, London: Penguin Books.

Swyngedouw, E., and Heynen, N. (2003) ‘Urban political ecology, justice and the politics of scale’, Antipode, Vol. 35, 898 – 918.

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Smog Vacuum Cleaner – White Elephant or Solution to Air Pollution?

Dutch Designer Daan Roosegaarde installed a 7-metre high air-purifying tower akin to a smog vacuum cleaner in Rotterdam.

Analysed as an independent space of flows (Caprotti and Romanowicz, 2013), the tower is able to clean 30,000cm3 of air an hour and leaves surrounding air 75% cleaner by:

  1. Sucking in dirty air
  2. Using ion technology filtration
  3. Capturing small pollution particles (PM2.5 and PM10)
  4. Returning clean air through the tower’s vents


It looks like this:

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As a component of urban flows and circulations (Caprotti and Romanowicz, 2013), this air-purification tower acts as a metabolic vehicle in the array of components governing the circulation and exchange of air and pollution in Rotterdam. It unconventionally alters the direction of circulations of air pollution. Regular ventilation systems provide isolated and static containers, protecting the “inside” of buildings from the polluted atmosphere “outside”. Instead of acting in opposition to the environment (Gissen, 2010), the tower provides a space of flows that interacts and engages with pollution in a radical way, being the site of attraction, absorption and transformation of smog particles, collecting and releasing cleaner air to the surroundings.

On top of that, Roosegaarde applies high pressure to the soot collected to make diamonds. The sale of these diamonds made out of soot (something that is discarded, rejected and regarded as sordid to most people) carry with them powerful messages on air pollution. It enhances the tower as a nodal point of Rotterdam’s urban metabolism, for the confluence of the agency and discourse of actors, from urban-planners to designers.

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Yet, the political and ideological role of eco-city projects in fashioning new urban metabolic relations is founded on asymmetric readings and conceptualisations of sustainability, environmental governance and the city. As processes of metabolic change are hardly socially neutral (Swyngedouw, 2006), I question the penetrability of this eco-tower in sending an engaging message about air pollution to a general population of city dwellers. Or is this message about air pollution restricted to avant-garde millennial consumers? Furthermore, large-scale construction and application of this tower as an actual purification system for Rotterdam is costly and unviable. Will this become a mere white elephant, expensive to build and cumbersome to maintain? With little tangible influence on the air pollution problem, is this yet another exclusive project reproducing “hollow” sustainabilities (Whitehead, 2010)?


If you would like to refer to some of the articles I was inspired by:

Caprotti, F. and Romanowicz, J. (2013) ‘Thermal Eco-cities: Green Building and Urban Thermal Metabolism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 37, No. 6, 1949 – 1967.

Gissen, D. (2010) ‘Toxic Territories’, Architectural Design, Vol. 80, No. 3, 54 – 59.

Swyngedouw, E. (2006) ‘Metabolic Urbanisation: The Making of Cyborg Cities’ in N. Heynen, M. Kaika and E. Swyngedouw (eds.) In the Nature of Cities – Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, London, UK: Routledge, 21 – 40.

Whitehead, M. (2010) ‘Hollow Sustainabilities? Perspectives on Sustainable Development in the Post-Socialist World’, Geography Compass, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1618 – 1634.


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