Until about eight years ago, there used to be entire fields of discarded bottles all over the Tohono O’odham reservation, testifying to the despair that followed the disintegration of an ancient way of life. But today, these fields are largely gone, thanks to the dedication of one man to cleaning up the rez and his own life as well. And not only did he find a new purpose for himself, but for the bottles as well.
Richard Pablo had been sober and getting his life back together for about a year, when the Tohono O’odham Community College offered him a job collecting waste glass for a remarkable project: the development of a type of concrete that forms without heat.
Regular concrete requires limestone to be heated to between 2000 and 2800ºF for a day. Its carbon footprint is huge as a result: nearly 1 ton of CO2 per ton of concrete at an annual production of 10 billion tons. Looking for a sustainable alternative, David Stone, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona, invented a compound based on iron carbonate that aggregates without heating. Moreover, it absorbs CO2 to form the carbonate from the waste iron that is the primary ingredient; it is effectively carbon-negative.
Rather by accident, Dr. Stone discovered that the compound, called Ferrock, has a high affinity for glass, which increases its strength by a magnitude. It also lends Ferrock a degree of flexibility which makes it far less brittle than regular cement, to the point of being earthquake-resistant.
When Dr. Stone came to TOCC to give a presentation on sustainability, he mentioned his need for large quantities of waste glass to TOCC President Jane Latane. She knew that Richard, who had been attending the college for a semester, was looking for a job and brought the two men together. According to Richard, she was not aware of the ‘party fields’ on the reservation at the time and thought he would get it from the Tucson landfill. But Richard knew all too well and grabbed this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone with both hands.
The Weekly Green interviewed Richard about his collaboration with Dr. Stone and the meeting of two vastly different perspectives it entailed.