Professor Wants To Make Waste Wanted, Again

June 15, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, Bryan McKenzie,

Just because you can throw it away doesn’t mean you should.

In fact, J.T. Bachman, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia School of Architecture, argues that reusing and repurposing toss-away materials is the better alternative.

“We all generate a ton of trash and a lot of that trash is usable, but we just think ‘I don’t need this anymore’ and we just throw it away,” Bachman said.

When something that still has utility gets tossed instead of being reused, it can remain in a landfill for 500 years, he said.

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“Think about how long that is. It’s generations. It’s older than our country. It’s crazy,” Bachman said. “So the more that we can tap into waste as a resource, the better. We should stop thinking about it as waste and start seeing it as material that is valuable and can be used.”

Bachman is putting his summer where his beliefs are, working on a project through the school to find new uses for old material. His project, “Waste Not, Want Not,” is supported by a $5,000 grant from the school, and sets the stage for a fall research seminar based on finding new use for what most consider trash.

The project is one of 17 proposals receiving about $89,000 this summer from the School of Architecture to support research in the school’s different disciplines.

“We’re just sort of kicking it off, so the immediate plan is finding materials that we can get our hands on to manipulate them, explore them and see what we can do,” he said. “This fall, I’ll be leading a research seminar in the Architecture School that will be fabrication-based, but largely around the same topic.”

A close up of research assistant holding out a pink foam cup
One project Bachman and Orlando have worked with this summer is combining EPS foam “snow,” remnants from a local milling job, with a bio-resin to make a sturdy, lightweight material. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The first move is to test the waste stream waters to see what may be doable with the equipment in the Architecture School’s FabLab and what materials can be procured from the community, Bachman said.

“We’re starting to create connections between the school and local industry, identifying processes with inherent waste streams embedded within them,” he said. “So far, people with lots of leftover material scraps have been pretty happy to let us take it off their hands.”

In the fall research seminar, students will develop data on what materials are available, their life cycles and where they end up. Then, they’ll create a body of knowledge that can be used for the next few years, Bachman said.

“My hope is to try and find ways to make this functional and usable in the community, so one of the things that we’re sort of self-imposing with this summer grant is to try and make something functional or useful for somebody,” he said.

Various foam materials
Foam material, often used for insulation inside walls and making models, was combined with expansive foam to pull offcut foam scraps back together for use in Architecture School modeling. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“We reached out to a local school here and we’re going to build a little structure for the playground,” he said. “We don’t know our materials yet, so we don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like, what it’s going to be, or what it’s going to be made of, but it’s something that we felt could give us traction with the project.”

Although the program is in its infancy, Bachman hopes that it will add to the existing ecological recycling mantra.

“I think the messaging is already out there of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ but hopefully we can also show that the process can be imaginative and fun,” he said. “You can do something in a pretty simple, straightforward way and make an object that is really beautiful and useful.

“Maybe you can turn a discarded material into a new building material that you can use in the same way you might use a piece of wood or concrete. We hope to open up people’s imaginations a little bit and incentivize them to think about the bigger picture.”

For now, Bachman is spending the summer seeking sources and collecting materials.

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“We’re trying to toe the line between collecting stuff and not becoming hoarders,” he laughed. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, yeah, I see potential in that material, I’ll take it,’ and we suddenly have a room full. We’re trying to be careful and thoughtful about, ‘OK, we can work with this.’ We should test it and evaluate its potential.”

Bachman is quite aware that not every effort to reuse a material will be successful.

“If not, then we move on to other explorations,” he said. “Everything’s not going to work out. There are definitely going to be a lot of failed attempts, but I think that that’s part of the exploration.”

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Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications