Sludge as a Means to Sustainability?

Soon architects and designers may have a brand new material to build with—sludge! Yes, that gooey, smelly waste you see floating around in rivers that rumors claim can turn you into a three-armed, four-legged, purple-spotted mutant. (I’m sure anyone who’s taken a dip in New York’s Hudson River can verify this.)

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While it may seem a bit disgusting—okay, very disgusting— the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) is toying with the idea of turning the ooze from Gowanus Canal, a highly contaminated waterway in Brooklyn that has been dubbed a Superfund Site by the E.P.A. due to its more than 300 cubic yards of sludge, into glass, according to a recent article at the Popular Mechanics Web site.

The process is called vitrification and would produce giant cubes (about 4 ft. by 4 ft.) of harmless, eco-friendly glass that would then be suitable for building and other design uses.

The article details the steps: Once the sludge is collected and placed into molds (Cue the next new episode topic for Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs!), it is heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to kill of any existing bacteria, germs, or other nasty matter and then filtered to remove any remaining toxins. The heat simultaneously causes any sand or particles in the goop to mix with metal particles and form blocks of safe and durable glass.

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What a fantastic plan! However, while vitrification is a viable solution, it is also highly costly, and all that sludge may just wind up as hazardous waste in a landfill somewhere anyway (or in a sewer to create the next batch of alligators to bring rise to New York City’s urban legends). How terrible when there’s another solution!

But regardless of ROI and red versus black budget comparisons, I think the takeaway here is surely the matter of possibility. As professionals in construction, design, and government legislation continue to experiment with new and innovative ways of recycling to push the limits of known sustainable practice, we are continuing to discover that we have yet a multitude of untapped resources to further reduce pollution and size down our carbon footprints. But what is the price tag to a healthier way of life? Shouldn’t improving our environment take precedence over financial factors?

— Stacy Straczynski

2 Comments

  1. Stacy – Taking good care of Mother Earth should be our #1 priority and I love that someone has been creative enough to come up with what to do with sludge. If we could do that with most things (which I think as a culture, we're starting to do), think of how much better the Earth will feel. Not to mention, we'll feel great too, knowing that we aren't destroying our planet to make a buck anymore.

    Keep up the great work – love your posts!
    -Heather 🙂