This Tucson project is turning plastic waste into construction-grade building blocks
Plastic is used in everything from that cup of iced coffee in the morning, to the bumper on your car. But the waste those products generate is piling up — and a lot of it is going straight into landfills.
United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres talked about the problem in a video posted on Twitter ahead of World Environmental Day last month.
“Every day, the equivalent of 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic is dumped into our oceans, rivers and lakes,” he said. “Micro-plastics find their way into the air, the food we eat, and the water we drink.”
U.N. data shows more than 400 million tons of plastic is produced globally every year. A third of it is only used one time.
Recycling seems like a good way to help spur change. Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik says the problem is, a lot of plastic waste can’t actually be recycled. Meaning the plastic not only end up getting thrown out, it also costs the city money.
“Potato chip bags and candy wrappers, the single use plastic bags — those are all contaminants when they wind up in the blue bin,” Kozachik said. “And the result is that the city is paying public services over $300,000 a year in contamination fees.”
Last fall, Kozachik's office launched a pilot program that aimed to turn some of that trash into something useful. The plan was to ask Tucsonans to bring their plastic trash into a collection point at the office — anything from hard waste like detergent bottles, to softer stuff, like grocery bags. From there, it would be sent to Los Angeles-based company ByFusion to be turned into construction-grade building blocks.
Heidi Kujawa, ByFusion's CEO and founder, says blocks are created without any added chemicals or glues, using a proprietary method of steam and compression.
"We don't burn it, we don't melt it, we don't liquify it," she said. "We literally fuse it together."
Kujawa says it's not exactly recycling that ByFusion does.
"Recycling is about taking the water bottles and the food products, you know, the things that have high value, and reconstituting them into pellets and then transforming those back into other, similar products," she said. "But there's very much a process that happens between water bottle one and water bottle two, that's recycling. That's not what we're about. We really view ourselves as a re-purposer, we're not changing the material that's going in the machine."
Each block is outfitted with holes on the top and bottom so they can be drilled into and fit together like puzzle pieces.
“It’s melded together and formed together and held together until it sort of starts to congeal and harden,” Kozaschik said. “And then the blocker kicks out, you know, this Lego. A 22-pound Lego.”
Kozachik has one on display in his office that’s cut in half to reveal hundreds of multicolored layers of different plastics that look like striated canyon walls. Some of the logos of old containers are still visible.
ByFusion says the product is a zero-waste alternative building material that’s tough enough to replace concrete.
Some of the blocks are already being used to build city projects like raised planters and park benches. Bigger projects are on the horizon, like municipal buildings and a storage unit for the local women’s shelter. Kozachik says a guy in Flagstaff is building his home out of them.
But what began as a pilot project last year has exploded in popularity among Tucsonans.
“People know that this stuff is just going to the ocean or the landfill,” he said. “And people want to have a way to participate.”
More than 100 tons of plastic have been collected since the pilot began, with people from areas as far flung as Vail, south of Tucson, and even Phoenix, coming to Tucson to drop off bags of waste.
The city has opened a handful of additional drop-off locations this year. The locations fill up several times a week. Then, waste management trucks take it to Tank’s Speedway Recycling and Landfill, where it’s baled into a 1,100-pound cube before heading to California.
On a recent visit to the recycling center, baling crew supervisor Anthony Bannister stood before a humongous pile of plastic bags filled with even more plastic waste. Trucks carrying more arrive daily.
“We haven't even dug through half of this pile yet,” Bannister said.
Bannister and his crew sort the material by hand to separate anything that won’t work for the construction blocks — like styrofoam and metal. He said the pile of raw plastic has been building up at the facility over the last two months. Behind it, a neater pile of more than 100 bales of the plastic was ready to be driven to ByFusion.
“So if you do the math, you're looking at about over 100,000 pounds of plastic bales … just this in the small area right here,” he said. “And just imagine how much it is in this big pile.”
Kozachik says the sheer volume of the plastic collected so far has made the original process — of collecting, baling and storing the plastic in Tucson — essentially obsolete.
“It sort of defeats the whole environmental purpose of let's get plastic and drive it to California, then drive the blocks back,” he said.
That’s how talks began for a second phase of the project. Then, in May, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and the City Council signed a $1 million contract with ByFusion to bring the company’s machinery to Tucson. Under the new agreement, the city will put forth another $2.4 million to build a ByFusion facility at the local landfill, so that the waste can be collected and converted all in one place.
Kujawa, ByFusion's CEO and founder, says this is the first agreement of its kind her company has made with a city. And the new Tucson facility will eclipse the original one in Los Angeles.
“The demand's been really overwhelming,” she said. “So it’s not gonna be a replica of L.A., it's gonna be a bigger system, a bigger platform, a bigger facility, because the volumes [in Tucson] are larger from what we're dealing with in LA right now.”
Kujawa and Kozachik say they hope to get the space up and running within the next year.