Nearly every construction project generates trash. It might be cut off ends of 2x4s or scrap pieces of drywall or wood, plastic, and cardboard window packaging. Prefab housing is a nearly scrap-free process, but we aren’t prefabbing.

Before we moved here to Panama, we completely remodeled a 1920s Craftsman style house in Colorado. Down to the studs and more. In that project, we generated 120 cubic yards of debris (60, 2-yard dumpsters), mostly old plaster, plus an amazing amount of stuff that we put out next to a big tree. The whole town knew of the Free Tree, and some people made regular passes by the house to score the latest junk. My favorite piece placed at the Free Tree was an avocado green, 1960s style electric fireplace that hung on the wall. Very retro, and I bet it is still in service today. But when we were done, we had created an artful, very energy efficient dwelling that can be enjoyed for another 100 years. Our monthly fuel bills to heat the house went from $400 before remodel with the thermostat set at 55 (brrrrrrr), to less than $100 post remodel with the thermostat set at 68, and there had been significant energy price increases along the way. I think the significant contribution to the landfill was worth the future savings in energy costs.

At this point in construction of our shipping container house, we have four shipping containers making up the infrastructure/bones for walls, floors, and roofs, the equivalent of 1,280 square feet of living space. I have been keeping track of our current trash. So far, the sum total of our trash from this project is:

  • a couple hundred paper bags from the sacks of cement, most of which we reused to protect the fresh concrete from impending rain
  • a couple hundred welding rod 1-inch ends
  • a couple dozen angle grinder cutoff wheel stubs
  • a 5-gallon bucket full of metal cutoff scrap; I told Armando to stop the recycled metal guy that comes by in his pickup truck a couple days a week, announcing his presence over the bull horn. I told Armando he could keep the money: he got $3 for his bus fare for the week. Often, a truck will come up the mountain selling fish, and go down the mountain collecting recyclables
  • and five, one-gallon empty paint cans

Not bad so far I think.

I’m not claiming that we are building the world’s greenest house. I’m not going to go there. However, we did up-cycle four containers that were at the end of their useful lives. Part of me wishes that we had bought new containers, just for the visual harmony, but what’s green or interesting about that? Our old, beat containers are beautiful. They show a history of transport many times around the world. To me, the containers are like my friends. Old faces, wrinkles and warts and all, marks that show character and a life lead. I can make up my own stories about how each set of dents happened (in the containers, not my friends, although that could be fun, too).

Here’s a photo of our trash pile:

Like a line from the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas; Five empty paint cans... (I hope that you don't sing that in your head for for the next week...)

That’s all for now.

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7 thoughts on “THE TRASH REPORT

  1. Been waiting to see what you do with the steel walls. Are you planing on covering the exterior and/or insulating the walls to keep the heat out -just the opposite of your Colorado house?

    Also, have you been able to figure out how much money you will save compared to building with cement and concrete block? Be interested in your viewpoint.

    Glad to see this project come together



    • Hi Alan,

      For the most part, we will just paint the steel walls inside and out. Outside will be a light color to reflect the sun’s rays. Here in the mountains, windows will be open year round except for a few cold (66-degrees) nights, and the heat of the day rarely touches 90 here so it is only the gain from direct sun that is the problem. The sun takes a nearly directly overhead arc here at 8-degrees off the equator, so it is mostly the east and west walls that will catch the most sun. Strategic overhangs will help, too, as will our high ceilings (stay tuned, I have a blog in the works about our first constructed roof). The container roofs are another issue. The sun pounds on them all day long and the heat gain is significant. We want to use the flat roofs for roof decks, but they are somewhat flimsy so I plan to pour a 3-inch concrete slab up on top. This will protect from the heat. The question is still open whether or not I should put a sheet of Styrofoam or some of that reflective bubble pack insulation under the concrete. The reflective stuff is most efficient if there is an air space to reflect heat into, so the Styro may be best if it is needed. Maybe I will do a test with the small slab I just poured for the well roof. I can set it in the sun and see how much heat is transferred to the underside.

      Cost comparison with block? I’m not sure. I wanted to do this art project. The 4 containers cost $18,000 placed on their columns. I still need floor and roof slabs. I still need to buy windows, etc. Speed is definitely a plus with the containers, and it all can be accomplished with a much smaller crew of men, mostly just Armando and me. Or me alone on many days. By the time you add up all the costs of a concrete building — sand, gravel, (expensive) rebar, (expensive) cement, blocks, big crew for labor, I’ll bet that the costs are similar. I’m not sure as I haven’t done the math. Armando is here early, gotta run and get to work.

  2. The trash guys in Paonia would be sadly disappointed at your efficiency, Fred. They probably looked forward to seeing what was in our mountain of transformation every weekly trash pick-up day. But it was a clean mountain of transformation, thanks to you.

    • Howdy Jimmy,

      One person’s trash is another person’s treasure for sure. Here in Panama, not everyone has gotten on board with the anti-litter campaigns that have started in the country. Many people throw their beer or soda cans from the car window. Ugly if I may judge. But then, an enterprising person will canvas the roads with a plastic bag, making his day’s pay and feeding his family by collecting the aluminum. Right and wrong is so difficult to figure.

  3. We have a Container buid we started last May in Volcancito and are almost done. Send email and I will send you some Pics

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