FUTURE CAPE TOWN | Can plastic waste be the answer to low-cost housing?

“I call it Ocean Dome”

Ocean Dome with Signal Hill in the background.

The Ocean Dome is an architectural installation meant to showcase the potential of plastic waste up-cycling for construction.


Can plastic waste be the answer to low-cost housing?

Shoppers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year.This translates to about a million bags every minute across the globe, or 150 bags a year for every person on earth.  And the number is rising. “A plastic bag can kill numerous animals because they take so long to disintegrate. Scientists have identified 200 areas declared as ‘dead zones’ where no life organisms can now grow…” reports Ocean Crusaders.

The sustainable use of resources, the reduction and reuse of waste has become one of the most crucial topics worldwide. Waste from urban areas, domestic or trade, varies considerably from local authority to local authority depending on the socio-economic level of the community. “95% of urban waste is disposed of on landfill sites of which there are about 1200 in South Africa”, according to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWA). While a number of industrial sectors have made significant progress in implementing recycling systems to reduce waste, sadly in South Africa “there are no effective incentives to encourage all waste producers to adopt cleaner production processes and minimise waste generation”.

Environmental art movements have for many years enhanced the way we observe and interact with nature. Some noteworthy movements include the story of stuff, humans in nature, Oliver Barnett Photography, Our Common Future and the Centre for Civil Society at UKZN headed by Professor Patrick Bond has made exceptional strides in their contribution to environmental research. With the use of recycled waste, natural or renewable resources, these art installations educate the public about environmental problems but often serve a dual purpose by raising awareness on social issues in a particular area.  One such project was recently exhibited by German artist Markus Heinsdorff and showcased at one of Cape Town’s hotspots, Green Point Urban Park.

A colourful shot of the Dome

“I call it ocean dome” said Heinsdorff.  Ocean dome is an art object made of 50 gabions (metal baskets) in the form of a round tower and filled with plastic bottles. The Ocean Dome is located at the Biodiversity Showcase Garden Environmental Education Centreadjacent to Green Point Park. The waste/resource, collected from the Atlantic beaches around Cape Town, consisted of 10 000 bottles, fishing nets, fishing lines and other plastic scraps.  

A close-up of the metal gabions filled with plastic waste.

A close-up of the metal gabions filled with plastic waste.

Using plastic as a renewable low-cost building material

“Worldwide there are more than 100 million people who are homeless and more than a billion live in insufficient accommodations. At least 600 million people live in accommodations which are perilous or harmful to health”, we learn from Heinsfdorff. These numbers are bound to increase because of climate change, environmental disasters and other issues. “That is behind the idea to use cheap or cost-free waste-like recycling material for innovative, attractive and eco-friendly low cost accommodations/buildings. Instead of burying or burning the materials after floods, earthquakes or storms, a cycle with activatable raw material can be started” said Heinsdorff. Bangladesh can be seen as an example of a Nation adapting and responding to change. The floods in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998 were made more severe because plastic bags clogged the drains. The government has now banned plastic bags.

Educational Value

“When we dispose plastic in a garbage bin, the air, moisture, climate, or soil cannot break them down naturally to dissolve them in the surrounding land. They are not biodegradable”.  It is planned that school classes visit the art object as an installation illustrating both the quantity of plastic that is washed on Cape Town shores, and their potential for a different use, so as to sensibilise young students to the topic.

Plastic waste washed up on Cape Town shore was the artist's primary construction material.

Plastic waste washed up on Cape Town shore was the artist’s primary construction material.

Construction Process

The architectural idea is based on the concept of filling waste-like materials in the metal gabions. In order to do that, a light-weight construction is assembled, in which the gabions are stacked like bricks. “Currently, I’m examining different options in cooperation with the Chair of Climate at the Technical University Munich, in a workshop. There, the waste is supposed to be used not only as construction material, but also as insulation for cooling or warming” says Heinsdorff. Various materials can be used or upcycled, including either regular plastering, s or clay, or membranes like newly developed, flexible cement sheets on textile supports. “In regions with a lot of plastic waste, this precious material can re-enter the circulation in projects like this and be downcycled later on” says Heinsdorff.

The steel frame supporting the Dome during its construction phase.

The steel frame supporting the Dome during its construction phase.

The idea of building with waste highlights two important lessons – first, the creative and sustainable up-cycling of waste as an extremely low-cost construction material when new building forms are created. Secondly, “transforming the halo of poverty into a visitor magnet and architectural attraction (with e. g. guided tours, etc) through the creative use of waste in art project” adds Heinsdorff.

The architectural potential of plastic waste showcased through the night lighting of the installation.

The architectural potential of plastic waste showcased through the night lighting of the installation.

Markus Heinsdorff is an internationally recognised artist whose installations explore the relationship between Nature and space in different contexts of the world. Using design, architecture and photography, Markus documents the process of developing artistic projects with locally available materials, while exploring possibilities for up-cycling and empowering communities. In 2013, he was the recipient of a Recycling Design Award

Read more:


  1. http://www.heinsdorff.de/en/work/installations/ocean-dome
  2. All the photos and their rights belong to the artist.


About Rifqah Naidoo

Reluctant to categorise herself in an age of definitions, Rifqah Tifloen can best be described as a freelancer of life. Having completed her Post Graduate degree in Media Studies at NMMU, her fields of research were primarily focused on Ecofeminism, Philosophy, Culture and Film. However, as a researcher her passion for the environment, urbanism, gender relations and socio-economic justice have broadened her research interests. While she is an endorser of active citizenship, her vision is to inspire others by making windows where there were once walls.