As I described in last week’s post, at least here in the US, we have serious challenges befalling us with plastic recycling along with a host of waste plastics that can never be recycled. A recycling infrastructure built almost exclusively on exporting masses of “dirty” recycling to China now has the recycling system here in the US is in shambles when China stopped taking recycling. Further, so many plastics simply can’t be recycled, meaning that even well meaning folks who recycle everything they can still end up throwing away enormous amounts of single-use plastics, packaging, film, and other waste. In permaculture design terms, it is time to turn some of this waste into a resource! So in today’s post, I’d like to explore the concept of making ecobricks as a way to sink large amounts of un-recyclable waste into a productive resource and share some designs and ideas for using ecobricks for building projects.
Ecobricks, also known as Bottle Bricks, are a concept that has been growing in popularity, particularly in developing nations who are awash with plastic. When we have plastic literally filling up oceans, streams, and communities, communities start looking for ways of dealing with that plastic–and ecobricks are one of the solutions that everyday people are creating. In a nutshell, you take a plastic bottle, fill it with unrecyclable plastic, and use it as a building tool for all kinds of projects. If combined with other kinds of sustainable building techniques, like Cob, it is buildling tool can be used again and again, in the event that the original thing you built you want to dismantle.
Why are Ecobricks a spiritual and sustainable practice?
Ecobricks present multiple kinds of “solutions” and benefits. Before getting into the specifics of how to make them, I want to share these benefits.
Accessibility and empowerment. The first thing I really like about ecobricks as a sustainable solution is that they are easy enough that anyone can make them. And everyone has access to the basic materials (which are all free, and all considered waste). Even if you choose not to use ecobricks in your own project, there is a global network of people who are making them to contribute to community projects (see more at grobrick.com).
Raising awareness and raising plastic consciousness. Saving up the plastics for ecobricks (and seeking out additional plastics) helps shift one’s own awareness about the proliferation of plastic. New studies have recently demonstrated the serious toll that plastic is having in the world, from drinking water to oceans to our own bodies. By treating it as a resource and changing your relationship to plastic, it helps you raise your own “plastic consciousness” in terms of both how much plastic you consume, but also, how much would get thrown away if you weren’t creating ecobricks.
Magic and intention. Making the ecobricks has a deeply spiritual side, a kind of sacred action. Because it takes a long time to make ecobricks, as you create, it becomes a kind of meditation. As you push the plastic into the brick, you can meditate on the world you are creating, rather than the world that created that plastic. You can write on the ecobrick your hopes and dreams for the future, as many people do all over the world–these then become a way of doing both inner and outer alchemy through the transformation of waste plastic into a resource. The brick making becomes a magical act to help us create a different future.
Accountability. When it comes to plastic, people in privileged places often have an “away” mentality. Thus, our goal is to make the plastic go away as soon as it no longer serves us. Plastic packaging is wanted till the plastic is out of the package–then it needs to go away as fast as possible. Recycling allows it go away (at least mentally). But the truth is this: no plastic ever goes truly away. We are each personally responsible for the plastic we create demand for: from being willing to purchase plastic products to forgetting one’s reusable grocery bags and asking for plastic, that plastic is now yours. Ecobricks allows us to take a personal responsibility for plastics. And responsibility changes our relationship not only with the plastic, but with the land, who suffers too often from humanity’s plastic addiction.
Ecobricks as a Transitioning Technology. Obviously, plastic is not sustainable–the very opposite. We know that plastic, out in the ecosystem, causes serious concernes environmntally and for the health of all beings. A lot of people are moving away from plastic, into zero waste lifestyles, and really evaluating the plastic in their lives. Ecobricks are a transition tool–the more plastic you are able to lock up in ecobricks, the more you don’t allow back into the environment. This page explains this concept more in depth.
I hope that the above is enough to convince you that this is a great possibility for your own plastic! Now let’s take a look at how to make the bricks and what projects you can build with them.
Making an Ecobrick: Step by Step Instructions
The process of making an ecobrick simple, and I’ll walk through it step by step. First you gather up your materials. Since I’m working on a “big project” that will probably require several hundred bricks, I’m being really methodical about it. I keep every bit of non-recyclable plastic in plastic bags and keep these near the recycling, compost, vermicompst, and trash in my home. Thus, there are now five options: vermicompost for coffee grounds and food scraps, compost for any other organic material, recycling for regular materials that can be recycled, and the ecobrick station for everything else. This means very little goes in the trash! I also am prepared to gather up any excess plastic in other locations that I frequent–my workplace, places I hike, etc. I’m also in the process of recruiting friends and family to help me create more ecobricks or, at the least, save me their plastic for me to create more.
In this first image, this is a collection of a about a month of saving plastic from the sources listed above. Into my wheelbarrow goes everything from: unavoidable one use plastic (such as straws, plastic silverware), twist ties, bread bags, styrofoam, plastic baggies, plastic packaging, films, wraps, and so forth. I gathered a lot of this from my workplace and also as trash along the side of the road or in the woods. Once you start collecting, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to collect and how quickly you can gather enough for one brick. For example, a local picnic used 15 plastic tablecloths, which I gathered up and stuffed into a brick, making almost one full brick from that single picnic!
Here are two more photos of some of the selection from my most recent ecobrick making time: some food packaging that isn’t recyclable from bread, quinoa, and avocado, just to give you an idea:
The world is full of this stuff! You can find it at your house, at your work, littered in parking lots, in the woods, at the beach…you get the idea!
Once you’ve gathered your supplies, you will also need some 1 or 2 liter soda bottles. If you don’t produce them yourself, a walk down the street of any urban or suburban area on recycling day is sure to produce many for you! Or just ask people you know who drink soda. I usually store these in the same box I am gathering up my materials.
I usually gather stuff up for a while, and then make a few ecobricks at the same time. Once you hvae your material, you can begin stuffing your bottles. You might want to include some nice colored plastic on the bottom of your bottle. The reason you might want something nice colored is that when you build with them, if you choose to let the bottoms be seen, you can have different colors! Certainly, you want something soft so you can stuff it into the cracks, so don’t use any hard plastic for this purpose.
The technique is very simple, however, there are a few tricks to make really good bricks. First, you want a stick or dowel rod so as you get almost full, you can shove it down and keep stuffing further. Ecobricks need to be carefully compacted without much give or when used as a building material, a poor brick can compromise the structure. Stuffing the bricks as full as possible and using some muscle to push down the brick is necessary. Sometimes, larger materials can be twisted into the bricks. Other times, I’ve found I have to cut them into smaller pieces to have them fit (especially true for thicker plastics).
Fill up your ecobrick with plastic, stuffing down with the stick several times as it gets full. When you can’t add any more and the brick is firm, you can finish it by adding a cap. Your brick is done! If you want, you can register it at GoBrik.com and it will keep track for you of how much plastic you stored and how much C02 you saved. You’ll also get a brick number label and you can contribute your ecobrick to any number of ecobrick projects (or start one of your own).
I have found that each ecobrick takes maybe 20 minutes to make, once you sit down and do it. I usually only make 2 at a time because it takes a lot of muscle to make them! They also take a lot more plastic than you would think–the last few I made, I counted and they took between 35-50 distinct pieces of plastic, depending on the size. You can also invite others to gather up their plastics and come over and have an ecobrick party!
What is fun about this process is that it has been deeply empowering. Rather than lamenting each piece of plastic I threw away that wasn’t recyable, I’m now seeking out waste plastic for my bricks. For example, during a recent trip to Lake Erie with friends we had a few opportunities to do some beachcombing. I was picking up plastic all over the beach and stuffing it in a found 2 liter bottle, which I brought home. While I used to pick up trash only to recycle what I can and throw the rest away, I now can lock up that plastic in a brick that will be a resource. Just this past week, I had a picnic lunch for work as part of our opening year activities and I gathered up everyone’s waste straws, plastic bags, and chip bags for my brick.
There’s lots of ways to easily collect plastic. Take an empty 2-liter bottle and a dowel rod with you when you go anywhere or anywhere you might spend time that generates plastic. A small one can fit in a purse or bag, even. Thus, I now have an ecobrick in my car, I have one at my workplace, I have one in my purse. I recently went camping and took one with me (and finished it in one weekend by collecting plastic out of the woods!) I am now handing out sticks and bottles to friends and family, and asking them to make them for me (yes, I need a lot for the project). For Lughnasadh recently, we had a grove event and the grove helped make part of a brick.
What I love about this is that everywhere I go, I am leaving the world a bit better by collecting that plastic and putting it to a productive use.
There are great resources online that share different kinds of things you can do with the eocbricks. People make walls from them, benches, raised beds, furnature, even whole structures! Pintrest has a number of excellent boards where people are sharing ideas for using ecobricks, such as this one!
My long-term plan is to create an outdoor kitchen using ecobricks, which I am estimating will take at least 100 ecobricks in total. The ecobricks will help me create the basic surfaces on which I will build a cob oven and will also help build counter spaces and benches. Ecobricks, combined with cob (a natural building material of clay, sand, and straw) and with a good roof, will create a long-term structure that will offer us many years of use–for druid grove events and simple family meals! Ecobricks will be part of the entire kitchen, and I estimate that I will need at least 100 to complete the project! Here are some of my initial plans. Some of these things I’ve had the opportunity to build before, but others are new!
In terms of how to build walls, seats, and more, two such videos that offer a good introduction:
If you plan on making some ecobricks, please share your ideas and plans here! I would love to hear of anyone else who has a project in mind. Blessings!