Resourceful Residential Recycling/Sustainability

I would like to approach the topic of “Resourceful Residential Recycling/Sustainability” by sharing the personal story of a down-to-earth man (Gene) and his supportive wife (Geraldine) starting out their newly married life together in the early to mid 1960’s.

“It hurts me to see a building with all those good materials just bulldozed down,” says Gene as he recalls the early years when building his own home was just a dream.  The year was 1965. Gene and Geraldine had been married for four years.  They were young and enthused to build a life together.  On a fireman’s salary of $1.34 an hour, his paycheck was just enough to maintain a humble life and feed his family; his wife and 2 kids (and counting). He had just purchased an acre of land and he and his wife lived in a mobile home on the land. Gene picked up the trade of house painter and began to paint houses to earn extra money on his days off from the fire department.  After much contemplation, discussion, and research, he and his wife decided they were going to build a house for themselves made of adobe. They got to work on the blueprints. They decided they were not going to take any loans or put anything on credit so they had to be creatively resourceful.

Gene acquired all the dirt he needed for the adobes from a woman who lived at the foothills.  She told Gene to take as much dirt as he wanted for $5 per truck load, which this also helped to level out her backyard. He would shovel loads of dirt onto his pickup truck and then unload the dirt into a mud pit he dug on his land. He would transport and unload several truckloads in a day and would then drive to the ditch and fill 55 gallon buckets with ditch water using a 5 gallon bucket. Once the mixture was to the desired consistency Gene and Geraldine would shovel the mixture into 10” x 14” wooden adobe frames which resembled a long ladder.  The adobe dirt from the foothills was perfect. The adobe bricks held together perfectly and did not break.

What Gene and Geraldine may have not fully realized at the time is that living in a hot, dry climate like New Mexico lends itself to homes built from mud. Researchers at the National Association of Home Builders mention that “earthen walls provide excellent thermal mass, and the material comes from the ultimate in renewable sources.” (How Stuff Works) The bricks can be made on-site and they offer natural insulation making the house more energy efficient. “The walls of mud-houses are capable enough to restrict less intense sun rays and prohibit them to penetrate in to warm their inner side and begin to transfer heat to the living space. Soon after the sun is set, the temperature tends to drop in these particular areas, and then the warm wall will continue to transfer the heat to inner side for next several hours, having an influence from time lag effect… the fact is that these mud walls can act as a better heat reservoir due to the thermal properties inherent in the massive walls typical in adobe construction.” (Earth Homes Now) The adobes, if made directly, are literally “cheap as dirt”, so it turns out that the eco-consciousness of building an adobe home is beneficial not only for the environment but also the bottom line.

Around the time that Gene and Geraldine completed making 6000 adobe bricks, Gene noticed a demolition site downtown and one day after work approached the site. He struck up a conversation with the superintendent on site and explained to the superintendent that he was building a house for his family and asked if he would be able to take any materials that were marked for demolition. The superintendent informed Gene that the entire building was going to be demolished in 60 days and said there would be a few materials that could be discounted and sold. The superintendent told Gene to come back in a few days, so Gene came back and he would bring a case of beer from time to time to the demolition site around 4:30pm right before the construction workers would call it a day and he would talk with the superintendent and the crew.

It was in this “down time” that the business deals began.  Boards (2”x 8”s) were agreed upon at a price of $1.50 per full board as long as Gene agreed to remove and transport the 2-bys himself.  The only problem was that these boards were 18 feet long so Gene had to make a custom ‘storage transporter’ which allowed the boards to hang over the front of the truck and also extend off the bed of the truck. When Gene took the many loads of boards to his land, he and his wife would remove the numerous nails that were attached to the boards.  A 5-gallon bucket of nails was accumulated and the nails were then straightened for reuse in the building process of their house. “We had more time than money,” Geraldine said with a smile as she recalled the seemingly delightful memory.

Gene was also able to bargain several windows, as well.  The windows were 9’ wide by 5’ tall and a true ¼” thick that cost him $5 a window, again, if Gene agreed to remove the windows from the building himself and transport them away.  Gene gladly agreed and he and his brother had quite an experience trying to transport the windows in his pickup truck without breaking them.  The superintendent also threw in some long railroad ties that would be used as part of the foundation for Gene’s house. All locks and other materials were purchased from Sedillo’s Salvage Yard (Gene’s kids called it a ‘junk yard’). As the proverbial saying goes, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” and that was truly the case with Gene.

As it came time for some of the finishing touches, Gene would barter work with others. For example, Corbin Draperies at the time was the high-end window covering shop in Albuquerque.  Gene was now a proficient painter and he painted the Corbin warehouse, main office, and their home in exchange for high-quality drapes for all the windows. 

After 5 long years of no vacations, two more kids, bartering work, utilizing good salvaged materials and making adobe bricks, and then building, building, building on his days off from the fire department, in the early mornings before work, and the late evenings after work, Gene and Geraldine constructed a 2100 square foot adobe home: 4-bedrooms with large closets, 2 large bathrooms, a large kitchen, a utility room, a large den and dining room, a living room, and a 2-car garage for a total of approximately $9,000! Gene and Geraldine and their now 4 kids (and counting) moved into the home of their dreams, built with their hands, in May of 1970 and to this day have never had a single house payment! This is an extraordinary example that the use of recycled (as well as sustainable) materials can be very economical and in this case energy efficient as well.  

The story of Gene and Geraldine is near and dear to my heart because they are my grandparents, with whom I am very close. I have been helping my grandfather Gene with remodeling projects, paint jobs, and an assortment of other building related work since I was a kid. I have learned so much from him and he is one of the most resourceful people I know. My grandparents may not say directly that they are sustainable thinkers but their life story their life styles say it for them.  My grandfather and grandmother have an extremely deep and subtle appreciation for the Earth and all of the beautiful things that nature has to offer.  They have taught me the importance of re-use leading to less waste and I have incorporated this mentality with building projects as well as well as art that I have made.  They are the ultimate definition of sustainability.

"Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment.

Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.

Sustainability is important to making sure that we have and will continue to have, the water, materials, and resources to protect human health and our environment."      



: to make something new from (something that has been used before);

: to send (used newspapers, bottles, cans, etc.) to a place where they are made into something new;

: to use (something) again."


Building with recycled materials is beneficial to both the environment as well as money savings.  Many people may think of a home built from recycled materials as looking like a patchwork of materials thrown together in a very “obviously recycled” type of way.  Although this is true in some cases, there are many buildings that appear in every way to be new.  Below are two examples of each.  The first pair of exterior/interior visuals pictured is from a Brazilian home at the peak of a hilltop which was built entirely from the scrap (recycled materials) of local demolished  houses to include wood, glass bottles, ceramic tiles, mirrors, and various other ‘trash found’  items.  It may have an aesthetic that reflects its recycled qualities yet there is a certain charm that seems to embrace a tropical climate.

The townhouse is built mostly from 15 tons of bricks made from trashed ceramics, glass, clay, and rubble.  The products were gathered from around the Netherlands and ground up to make the bricks by a company called Stone Cycling.  This building is great example of materials being “creatively recycled” and repurposed and not standing out like a sore thumb. 


Lastly, is a home with aesthetic qualities incorporated from both of the examples above.  Shown below is a Taos ‘Earthship’ home which in my opinion, does a very nice job in integrating local aesthetics alongside a more artistic look of recycled materials.  This home also incorporates sustainable qualities to include utilization of natural materials, a greenhouse along the entire length of the house, a fish pond that helps to water a vegetable garden, as well as a garage equipped to charge an electric car.

Advances in technology along with collaboration in the recycling process can be a very powerful combination to help decrease the overall waste in the world on a large scale.  On a smaller scale, the story of Gene and Geraldine is a perfect example of how one household can contribute to sustaining an ecological balance. I think an important lesson learned from Gene and Geraldine in regard to residential recycling and sustainability is that the ultimate reward as a home builder is to construct a home that is cost-effective, energy and materials resourceful, nontoxic, eco-friendly, uplifting to the soul, and a place to call home in every sense of the word.



·        The average person generates over 4 pounds of trash a day.

·        In a lifetime, an average American will leave behind 90,000 pounds of trash

·        The U.S produces enough trash to fill 63,000 garbage trucks a day.

                      -  Nearly 1/3 or waste generated annually is from product packaging.

                      -  Anywhere from 8,000 – 10,000 diapers are thrown away before an average child is potty-trained. 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown annually.

                      -  2 billion razor blades are thrown a year in the U.S.

                      -  1.6 billion pens a year are thrown in the U.S.


·        On an annual basis approximately 14 billion pounds of garbage is dumped in the world’s oceans.

·        The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, (aka the Pacific trash vortex) is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. According to estimates, the patch can be as large as twice the size of the U.S. and would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than 1% of the garbage mass.


Trash is a huge issue on a global scale.  Recycling is so important because it can greatly reduce the amount of trash that accumulates. 



·        The EPA has estimated that about 75% of items thrown away by Americans can be recycled however only about 30% of it is actually recycled.

·        A glass container can go from a recycling bin to a store shelf in as little as a 30-day time frame.

·        Recycling ONE aluminum can, can save enough energy to listen to a full album on your iPod.  Recycling 100 cans could save the energy required to light your bedroom for 2 straight weeks.

·        21 million tons of food is wasted annually.  If this waste were composted, it would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road.

·        The Container recycling institute estimates that there are 36 billion aluminum cans thrown away in landfills last year that had a total scrap value of $600 million dollars.

·        According to the EPA, only about 12.5% of the 50 million tons of electronic waste (e-waste) is recycled in the U.S.

·        If the 140 million cell phones that end up in landfills a year were recycled, it would save enough energy to power approximately 25,000 households for an entire year.


If every household, especially globally, were ecologically conscience and exercised care toward the resources of the earth, whether it be building materials, water, food, trash, etc., that would help protect the planet and would benefit humankind. Now is the time to use the science, technology, and resourceful methods of recycling to help strengthen the future relationship of nature and humankind.


- Joshua Silva