The Alchemy of Turning Toxic Waste into Homes


Some people have an incredibly creative ability to make a pretty sweet lemonade out of very, very rotten lemons. What I mean is this: I live in northern Arizona, and much of our electricity comes from coal power plants on Navajo and Hopi land. Not cool. Not a sustainable industry or healthy for the residents. But that’s another story. This story is about turning coal burning’s poisonous by-product into homes.

Navajo Flexcrete is a small, innovative company, based out of the tiny town of Page, Ariz. Using the extremely toxic fly ash (think arsenic, lead, barium and mercury) from the local coal plant, it’s harvested, saturated with water and used as a concrete-like building material.

Now wait, you’re thinking, won’t this make a toxic building? Yes and no.

I spoke with Ed Dunn, an ecological builder who uses Navajo Flexcrete, and he says that during the construction process, builders need to use a particulate mask (just as they use when cutting wood or regular concrete block), because cutting or drilling the Flexcrete blocks will let out some toxic powders, but once the block is sealed and painted, there is no off-gassing and the product is stable and safe. Flexcrete has an R-factor of 35, providing excellent insulation, perfectly suited for homes utilizing passive solar.

Granted, this is not the most perfect of ecological home-building products, but when you consider the current situation of the coal plant’s fly ash being dumped into a side canyon of beautiful Lake Powell, wouldn’t it be better used to make well insulated homes that are suited for the extreme heat and cold of the high northern Arizona desert?

And I’m sure the creators of Navajo Flexcrete don’t want to perpetuate the dirty coal business in order to have more fly ash for their product – they are simply using the toxic waste that’s already there and safely turning it into homes.

Alchemy, if you ask me.

Image: ASU