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The Environmental Protection Agency is investing nearly $15,000 to provide walls made out of trash to the poor to heat their homes and reduce their carbon footprints.
The project is being financed through an EPA student design competition for “Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet.” The program provides funding for college students to test green energy ideas. Past projects include a device to monitor how long hotel guests spend in the shower.
Students at Washington State University came up with “TrashWalls.”
The university received $14,798 in taxpayer funding to build insulation made from solid waste to combat what it calls the “perverse incentives” of renters having to pay utility bills.
“This project focuses on developing and testing a new approach to retrofitting energy conservation measures in rented residential buildings,” the grant for the project states. “Due to perverse incentives where landlords pay for capital improvements and renters pay utility bills, many rental properties remain woefully energy inefficient. The burden of high utility bills then falls on those least able to pay them.”
The project proposes giving low-income tenants walls made out of plastic bags, cardboard, and other waste materials at a cost of 10 cents per square foot.
“The purpose of this project is to develop and test a new approach, ‘TrashWall’ in which a temporary interior insulating envelope is built within the existing exterior wall of a rented residential building,” the grant said. “In order to keep initial costs as low as possible, this interior wall is fabricated of materials harvested from the local solid waste stream such as plastic bags, paper, corrugated cardboard, and polystyrene. Keeping the cost of each TrashWall below ten cents per square foot, the payback period from utility energy savings should be less than one heating season.”
The project specifically targets low-income seniors, which the university argues cannot afford traditional green energy technology.
“Currently, there is no effective approach to retrofit rental units in low-quality housing to conserve energy and save money for the poor,” the grant said. “While green building research has indicated very effective paths to build low energy structures, these paths are meaningful only for those with capital.”
“We propose a pathway specifically focused on those with little money, who live in some of the least energy-efficient buildings in the country, to conserve energy, save money and reduce pollution,” the grant continued. “Temporary interior building envelopes will be built from no-cost, locally-harvested, materials recycled from the waste stream.”
Walls made out of garbage can be a “comfort” to poor people, the grant said.
“Installed in a rental housing unit, a TrashWall will reduce heat losses from the unit, improve the comfort of those spaces during cold weather, and save the renter money on their utility bills,” the grant said.
The TrashWalls will first be built and tested by college students, who will install garbage walls in their dorms and apartments to see how effective they are at lowering energy costs and reducing carbon emissions.
The project will also have a website “Trash Talk” to publicize the garbage wall designs and share their findings.
“The primary result of this work is expected to be a new energy conservation strategy, which enables those with very few resources to use their own creativity to better themselves, their communities, and their environment,” the grant said.
The EPA highlighted TrashWalls as an “innovative” idea that can address “pressing environmental” concerns.
“These students have the opportunity to bring their exciting new ideas for innovation in sustainability to life, by expanding their learning experience beyond the classroom,” said Dr. Thomas Burke, science adviser and deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
The project received a grant through the EPA’s P3 competition, or “People, Prosperity and the Planet,” worth nearly $15,000, and could potentially receive $75,000 more.
When asked why the EPA believes the project is a good use of taxpayer dollars, an agency spokesperson said the program “supports students to create change in communities.”
“Washington State University’s design team intends to make old buildings more energy efficient by using refuse as cheap, efficient insulation for walls,” the spokesperson said. “Their goal is to help regulate temperature so less energy is required for heating and/or air-conditioning. The [People, Prosperity, and the Planet] P3 program supports students to create change in communities.”
“The program’s purpose is to inspire holistic thinking about how to solve environmental problems outside the classroom and encourage students to think about people, prosperity and the planet when designing sustainable solutions to environmental problems,” the spokesperson continued. “Several P3 teams have used their projects to support their local community, as well as communities in need in the developing world.”
The spokesperson added that while the program creates a platform for students to innovate, the marketplace and researchers will decide whether there is a “need or desire” for TrashWalls, not the EPA.
Washington State University was selected for an initial grant, and will showcase its TrashWalls at a National Sustainable Design Expo this spring. After the expo, they will compete for a second grant worth up to $75,000 to try to bring their product to the marketplace.