Integrating Garbage in the Landscape
Filling tyres with trash bricks
We recently spent a month volunteering in Indonesia, on the beautiful and luxurious island of Samosir. We lent our hands to a small but emerging eco-village situated right on the shore of Lake Toba. At Eco-Village Samosir there are many projects underway, from mulching around the 3,000 newly planted trees to creating a food forest to feed the growing number of volunteers.
During our visit, we noticed that a major cause for action in Silimalombu (population: 200) was waste management and recycling. Granted this is a national issue, world wide even, but I guess for us it was more an in-your-face issue to tackle as the image of an eco-village doesn’t usually exist with a litter mentality. The community decided to ‘cope’ with the myriads of plastic bags and other garbage by supplying each home with waste bins and adding receptacles here and there in which they later burn their trash. So although the quaint village appears clean and tidy, the kids, dogs and local fishermen pay the price by inhaling toxic fumes twice a week. Not everyone has adopted the ‘dump and burn’ approach; some simply hide all their trash on the slopes of the lake, where, to this day, few people can see.
I am at a loss with this situation and still do not know how to deal efficiently with this ever-growing phenomenon. It’s sort of a catch 22 scenario. Let’s face it, the Indonesian landscape will continuously be filled with more plastic bags, wrappers and other petroleum-based rubbish. You can literally buy everything per single dose (one cup of coffee, one shampoo, one piece of candy…) and whatever you buy in local stores is generally wrapped a few times in plastic bags.
A failed attempt to make biogas
So, we came up with an idea that would tackle a few problems simultaneously. Behind Ratna’s house, the founder of the eco-village, we found a failed attempt at creating a biogas system. A long trench split her garden in half and in it loads of manure and other unknown waste have been rotting under three layers of tarp. It was beyond anyone’s repair and having been left untouched, it was quickly becoming a new trash collector. Our solution to kill two birds with one stone was to take the problem and make it our way out; we transformed the pit into a raised bed!
The raised bed under construction
Lacking sufficient soil and compost to make an all-natural mound, we decided to integrate the garbage in the architecture. We found a few truck tires laying around that we packed with a surprising amount of plastic trash, retired fishing nets, broken glass and metal bits. Inspired by what local shops do, we tried our best to make mini-bricks of garbage tightly wrapped in a few layers of plastic bags. A handful of villagers even brought us their trash and spontaneously started a clean-up session to contribute to our little project. Once all the tires were filled with waste, we added more bricks of trash in between to create a sturdy structure. As a result, we integrated the equivalent of 33 large barrels of trash in our structure. We were also lucky to have an endless supply of sand from the lake, as it helped us solidify the base.
The next step involved lots of layers of organic matter, wood chips, sticks, branches, and bamboo that were laying around the land. All that was lacking now was a thick layer of compost and soil — which we took from the nearby compost pile.
Covering the garbage with a mix of organic matter
We then saturated the mound with a flower and legume mix (calendula, tobacco, sunflowers, basil, chilies, spinach, beans and other indigenous species) hoping that they will soon cover the entire mound. When flourishing, these plants will also provide a natural barrier against buffalo, who dislike most of them, therefore protecting our vermicompost and other creepers. It will also be a haven for beneficial bugs and predators that will protect the garden, attract pollinating bees and feed our hens.
Making the seed mix
The last layer, made of compost and soil
Covering seeds with soil
Now, I know that integrating all this garbage in our raised bed is probably not the best way to deal with waste, but we tried to suggest original ways to deal with the problem — from planting flowers in old rubber boots to making hanging flower baskets with fishing nets, etc. We are sincerely hoping to inspire this eco-village to find efficient and sustainable ways to deal with their trash.
We are obviously open to ideas, suggestions and criticisms, so feel free to comment and share with us what else could be done.
Here is the short video illustrating this article:
Are you sure ther will be no toxic stuff leaving the tyre? I wouldnt use it.
I am not sure what the tires do in regard of toxic gases or water solutions, but what about the waste? I do not really think that that is a good solution…with garbage as a ground for human food…this is not organic waste!
First thing that comes to mind – “Garbage in – garbage out”.
There is some research that shows that the tires are pretty stable as long as they’re not exposed to the sunlight but all these bags, wrappers and other stuff (who knows what’s there?) … sounds like a big gamble. Flower beds? May be, if there is absolutely no other choice. Food? I’ll pass, thank you.
Also, if you compare it to burning garbage – you’ve just created a slow release/time bomb vs. their immediate action bomb.
I agree with the two previous comments. Their are a lot of carcinogenic chemicals that come from tires and other petroleum products. I think a better way to deal with trash is teach people to use less. For example, when they buy something take it home without a plastic bag. Great ideas, but not sure how safe they are. Why grow food in garbage when their is perfectly good soil all around us?
Trash is a gigantic problem in all countries. It is just more visual in developing countries. The best solution: all of us need to live with less junk. Use recyclable materials. Vote with our money.
The tyres are like tiny time capsules not unlike the stash of newspapers shoved into the stud walls from the old frame houses You never know what be of interest to someone in the future..?
I think if issues of health and toxicity can be resolved, this is an excellent an innovative solution to dealing with waste. However, with the potential for contamination of food, I’d be more comfortable using the ideas here for structures than food growing areas until safety could be established.
i had the same worrying of “Carsten” won’t the garbage partly deteriorate and get into the ground water? or even worst vehiculated in the plants of the beds?
My teacher always said: what will not kill the plant will not kill you? is it true?
The commenters so far miss the big picture. The waste is already there on site and it will be leaching into the soil and ground water anyway, whether they do this arrangement or not. It is not a problem that will go away, somewhere else. Better this, than the current circumstances.
In developed countries we tend to think that once waste has gone into a bin, that it has been sufficiently well handled (safely for us and the environment). This is not the case, even with recyclable items. We just pretend that it is.
As a suggestion, how about using this design for flower gardens to attract beneficial insects, or how about quick growing firewood species, bamboo for construction etc. These are things that are useful and minimise the risk from human consumption.
PS: I think tyres leach heavy metals, but over the years I’ve also seen plenty of people growing potato beds in stacked old tryes.
I was very surprised to learn recently that polyethylene plastic, like that found in milk jugs, actually isn’t horribly unsafe to burn, having combustion products similar to burning wood. It also emits a paraffin-like odor, which is what I smelled when my farmer neighbors were burning huge piles of PE “poly pipe” irrigation hoses. I went in to research exactly what toxic crap they were making us all breath so I could let them know, but instead found they probably weren’t causing much if any harm.
Maybe you could at least teach them that burning PE, LDPE, HDPE plastic in a hot fire with good air supply isn’t too bad, but that they should not burn PVC or other chlorinated plastics that will emit dioxin?
Another idea off the top of my head: small scale landfills. Anybody ever done that? Maybe they can dig it up one day for gasification when their village gets one those machines.
I’ve heard that tyres are a lot more stable than people think and if left in one place and covered in soil will not be a major source of contaminants.
However the other waste concerns me more, the plastic will break down into minute pieces and become part of the soil mixture over time.
I am rather disturbed by this, tires are made of toxic substances. Not on my stewardship!
what can of waste are we talking exactly?
The risks can be really serious,(toxins, leakage etc…) there is other solutions for waste management, contact me, we can talk about it in details if you want.
Don’t eat the food growing on it!
Hi Keveen, it’s nice to know your experiences in Samosir! I know personally how people use and throw plastic bags so carelessly here in Indonesia. I’m an Indonesian and currently living in Yogyakarta. Since you told us the place is intended to be an eco-village, I believe it is worthy to start a long term solution like sorting the garbage. It may (and surely) take years to be well implemented, but that’s the only way to deal with inorganic waste right?
In Yogyakarta there’s a village named Sukunan which has succesfully reduced, sorted, reused, and even recycled their garbages. It started with one person around 10 years if I’m not mistaken. The keys of his success were that he use social characteristic of people there to his advantage. People will only do thing that has been proven beneficial for them, people still follow instructions from elders or village head, and people feel uneasy to be different from others. So he set example, gave instructions, and after the movement reached critical mass the rest feel uneasy if not doing the same. Of course Batak people in Samosir have different social attitude than Javanese, but I believe there must be other way to deal with it.
About the waste, as long it doesn’t contain heavy metals I guess it might be better if we include them in the composting process. I’m suggesting this since a lot of people throw dirty plastic bags with food morsels inside. Shredded, composted and screened, we’ll get the plastic again and it doesn’t stink this time. Clean bags can be collected and sold to plastic recycling companies. I haven’t done this idea myself though :)
Tires have been used in Earthships for decades now and I’ve at least read that their safety has been consistently demonstrated. Likewise, the small pond made from a cut-out old truck tire has been a Permaculture mainstay also for decades. Unless the environment is extremely acidic, I can’t see their being a problem with heavy metals being absorbed by soil or water. I’d like to hear expert opinion on it, though.
That said, a better solution for the plastic bags, might be to compost all the garbage in a thermophilic pile first. Geoff Lawton teaches that when the compost is ready, it is then easy to pick out the pieces of plastic that remain. This would be preferable to trying to separate them before composting from the pathogen-rich raw garbage and sewage.
I commend you guys for getting in there and trying to do something, and also for your honesty. Hope my comments are helpful.
Another use for that exact setup and materials would be fencing. I’ve seen the tyre fences rendered too, and yes they contained rubbish materials. Being above ground and rendered, the materials in the tyre fence were probably fairly inert and stable. Regards. Chris
I filled a conventional swimming pool in a house we bought with tyres to reduce the depth for my non-swimming kids (a fence wouldn’t work because of its position relative to the house).
Over the years, we’ve grown a lot of ducks off the algae that grows there. I had the water tested by EAL, here in New South Wales, for heavy metals and Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH).
The results from all those tyres soaking in all that water? Almost 1 ppm of iron, 0.2 ppm for manganese, zilch for everything else.
So the research showing that tyres are stable and don’t leach seems to be accurate. The US alone generates some 200 million waste tyres every year, so we should probably be a little flexible with where we store them. After all there really is no “away” when you throw something away.
Hi Keveen, Our family lived in Haiti/Dominican Republic for about a year and a half. The same problem you faced is duplicated there. On small island nations the problem surfaces much more quickly than in larger countries.
That was one of the more difficult issues we tried to hash out while we were there, because there seemed to be no good solution. We watched as our Haitian friends dug up their new garden plot, sifting out all sorts of trash as they went, filled a wheelbarrow and went 10 feet over and dumped it back on the ground where they would dig a new plot next year. People do what everyone else does and what is easy. Not many people have the drive and desire to be change-makers.
However, there were promises of hope. One neighborhood of people decided on their own that they were tired of living in filth and began collecting all their garbage, taking turns bringing it to the local collection point where the only available trash truck would eventually pick it up. The results are beautiful and inspiring. Two streets over their neighbors are half-buried in garbage.
My advice, ask around and find someone with the drive and desire to be a change-maker. Hash out a workable plan for the eco-village, and let them run with it. Neighbors will notice the difference, and change will eventually spread. One other helpful note is to find the most influential person in the area (usually an elder or someone people greatly respect, in jungle villages it is often a chief or sometimes even a “witch”doctor). Speak respectfully to them and offer feasible options and irrefutable reasons why a change should be made. Once they are convinced of the necessity, they can educate their circle of influence, and change will come much more quickly and be much better enforced.