The world’s landfills are literally overflowing. According to 2008 figures (and we’ve added a few people since then), America alone produces a whopping 1.35 billion pounds of garbage every day – and that’s with many of us recycling and reusing more than ever. Many see waste as an unfortunate consequence of our consumer society, but designer Mitchell Joachim sees it as an untapped resource that could be used to create affordable shelters for booming global populations.

 Mitchell Joachim, Cities, Smart Trash, trash, landfill, waste, green building, materials, recycling, upcycling, 3D printing,

In a recent editorial for, Joachim proposes that in addition to changing design perspectives to create products that last longer and are more easily recycled, we should start to view overflowing landfills like a building supply store. The designer suggests that cities could continue to expand using their own junked materials as building blocks.

“Outsized automated 3-D printers could be modified to rapidly process trash and to complete the task within decades. These potential automatons would be entirely based on existing techniques commonly used in industrial waste compaction devices,” writes Joachim. “Instead of machines that crush objects into cubes, compaction devices could benefit from adjustable jaws that would craft simple shapes into smart ‘puzzle blocks’ for assembly.”

Using this ‘smart trash’ system, Joachim suggests that we could begin to organize our sorted trash into building elements — domes, archways, lattices, windows, and whatever patterns are needed. Trash could also be sorted and shaped based on material, with transparent plastic used for window-like openings, organic compounds used for temporary decomposable scaffolds, and metals for primary structures.

“Eventually,” dreams Joachim, “the future city would make no distinction between waste and supply.”

Of course, to capture, process and repurpose waste on this scale would take a drastic overhaul of our current infrastructure, which can barely collect, haul, and dump our trash fast enough as it is. There would also be questions of safety – with toxic chemicals permeating nearly everything we buy, there could be risk of dangerous offgassing or leaching from crushed materials. But Joachim seems to have anticipated this.

“A significant factor of the city composed from smart refuse is ‘post-tuning’ – and we would have to adapt this raw material for use. Integration into the city texture would be a learning process, he writes. “In time, the responses would eventually become more attuned to the needs of the urban dweller. This new city may be built from trash, but it will also be connected via computers. The buildings blocks will learn.”

+Mitchell Joachim


Images via Surizar and Steve Snodgrass