CHAPTER I: The Myth of “A Radically Sustainable Home Made of Recycled and Natural Materials…”

by Rachel Preston Prinz and Carrie Christopher

Just because it is organic in form does not mean it is natural. 

The Earthship literature states that 45% of a typical Earthship is made from recyclable materials. That means; a) that 45% of the materials used are removed from the recycling stream where they would be used until they cannot be used anymore, and; b) that 55% of what constitutes the Earthship is virgin material, which must be harvested, mined, manufactured, and/or transported to the site. 

Only the soil used in the berm and the earth plasters, framing, and vigas are natural. The roofing, thermal protection and rigid insulation, gutters and downspouts, EPDM, aluminum cans, plumbing, wiring, glass bottles, tires, cisterns, cooling tubes, tools, concrete, glazing for two walls of windows, window shades, glass doors, appliances, rebar, and the mechanical and plumbing system are not natural. Of these, the concrete, plumbing, and windows can amount to twice the number of those materials used in a traditional stick-built home.

Looking at the natural angle a bit deeper, the modern Earthship relies heavily on the use of concrete, which has been documented as contributing between 5% and 10% of the world's greenhouse gases. Concrete also removes oxygen from the air we breathe as it cures over its life. This can be a real issue if we have breathing issues or allergies.

In some ways, Earthships are even more polluting than other building types. They introduce toxins to oftentimes virgin land, are generally junkyards during construction, and they remove materials from the recycling stream. 

We have to be careful in how we talk about the Earthships, or any other building type. Using wishful thinking, passing on legends that are not true, and using buzzwords people have an emotional reaction to in order to trigger a belief that these buildings are recycled and natural… does not lead to better or more sustainable design. It does, however, lead to frustration for would-be builders.

We point these issues out only because we want to help address the real concerns that people have.

The Myth of Earthships and Recycling

 by Rachel Preston Prinz, Pratik Zaveri,
Asha Stout, and Carrie Christopher

Nature operates on the principles of zero waste. Trees make flowers and fruit in order to germinate and grow new versions of themselves and keep growing. Excesses of flowers and fruits are consumed by other species - they fall on the ground, decompose, feed various organisms and microorganisms, and enrich the soil. Animals and insects exhale carbon dioxide, which plants take in and use for their own growth, and then the plants release oxygen which helps us and the animals and insects with our own survival. Nitrogen from plant waste is transformed into protein by microorganisms, animals, and other plants. This continuous cycle is a symbiotic relationship: they feed us and we feed them. 

The Earth's major nutrients—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—are CYCLED and, then, once they are used and discarded to be used again, RECYCLED. Industry altered the natural equilibrium of the planet. We took substances from the Earth's crust and concentrated, altered, and synthesized them into vast quantities of modified materials that cannot safely be returned to the soil or to the earth’s original biological cycle because they are no longer made up of the primary constituents of life. We have to think of another way to make use of these used materials.

So when we want to talk about true sustainability, we begin with the familiar “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” philosophy. First, we REDUCE our use of materials insofar as we are able. Some people would say that having an exterior and interior window wall, as is common in the newest Earthships, is a violation of the REDUCE principle. These walls are not necessary. You can have the greenhouse via other means - like a stand-alone greenhouse that can be built of all recycled or reused materials. Another way we can reduce our footprint is to literally reduce our footprint. The Phoenix Earthship, for instance, has a total area of about 5,400 square feet, of which about half is unusable because the space is devoted to greenhouse and mechanical rooms. A 5,400 SF house is not sustainable, especially when only half of it is usable. Is it really necessary? Well, that is up to you.
RECYCLING is the process where used materials are remanufactured into new products by taking the material, breaking it down, and then using its raw ingredients to build something new. This prevents the waste of useful materials, reduces the consumption of virgin materials, lowers energy use, decreases air and water pollution, and lowers gas emissions. 

Downcycling converts used materials into products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. Making rags from old clothes and using cardboard boxes as packing or insulating material are examples of downcycling.

Upcycling, or returning the used materials into original raw form and reworking them into new forms, is what happens when we recycle aluminum and glass. Aluminum is melted down and made into new cans, saving over 90% of the energy required to make new ones from scratch. Glass works in the same way. This cycle can continue in perpetuity. Upcycling reduces the amount of waste that we produce and reduces the need for new virgin material to be mined, fabricated, or harvested. In the case of plastic, this means fewer oil wells drilled. For metals, fewer mountains mined. For paper, fewer trees felled. All around, this means less expended, or embodied, energy. The goal of upcycling is to prevent wasting potentially useful materials by making use of existing ones. 

REUSE takes a used item and reuses it, rather than putting it into the waste stream. This helps in exploiting the full potential of a material before it is discarded. So, as in the case of the tires, bottles, and cans used in Earthships, we are REUSING them, not recycling them, because we use the intact item as filler for the walls. None of those materials are going back into the production cycle; they are just making the recycling chain longer.