Life in Plastic
Instead of polluting the environment with plastic waste, why not do something useful with it? Like building a house or some pretty furniture? Take ecobricks: an easy-to-do DIY-invention that could solve the world’s plastic problems. Read More
Did you know that recycling plastic is one of the most dishonest eco fairy tales in the world? The recycling process is a toxic procedure mostly only undertaken to make us feel good. But people around the world are developing new solutions. One is ecobricks: used plastic bottles stuffed with waste that can be used in house construction.
The production industry presented a way to recycle plastic as a huge step forward. But would you have guessed that most of us who sort our trash to separate out the plastic are just wasting our time? We produce 240 million tons of plastic waste per year. Every day piles of this waste are shipped to Asia just to be burnt, shredded and treated with even more chemicals over there. This procedure is so badly contaminating the environment, that some prefer to call this downcycling rather than recycling.
So what else can we do with all the mountains of plastic?
One small invention could offer a solution: Ecobricks are an easy-as-pie DIY product for upcycling plastic waste. In order to build a so-called ecobrick, you just need to stuff an old plastic bottle with other soft plastic waste. This “brick” can then be used to build houses since plastic is ideal as an insulating material.
For years now, US environmental activist and designer Joseph Stodgel has been experimenting with ecobricks in South Africa and the US. He talked to us about how this little invention together with similar upcycling solutions could help us solve the whole world’s plastic waste problem.
Jo, can anybody build their own ecobricks?
Yes, that’s what’s so awesome about ecobricks: Even children can do it. Once you’ve cleaned and dried all your plastic and styrofoam waste, you can stuff it into an old bottle using a simple stick. What comes out is a fully operational ecobrick.
What can I do with this ecobrick afterwards?
Plastic and styrofoam are proven to have a high insulation value. So ecobricks serve perfectly as insulation material inside walls – the more tightly you stuff them, the more effective they are. So instead of filling your houses’ walls with fiberglass, the material generally used for insulation in the US, you could just fill it up with ecobricks.
“The message of the ecobrick movement is: Let’s do it locally.”
Fiberglass is certainly the most common insulating material in the US, but the department stores also already sell recycled plastic solutions for insulation. Aren’t these materials just as good as ecobricks?
True, when you go to the store, you can buy very expensive eco insulation material made from shredded plastic bottles. But to make it clear: This super expensive material is made from plastic bottles collected in California, then sent over the ocean to be melted down and shredded in China, then sent all the way back to us, thereby badly damaging the environment, to end up in a department store shelve labeled “eco”. By contrast, the message of the ecobrick movement is: Let’s do it locally. We cut out the middlemen and refuse to ship plastic twice around the globe.
The idea of ecobricks was born in Guatemala in 2004. It’s an invention by German Susanna Heisse who uses ecobricks to build houses. How did she come up with the idea?
Susanna Heisse was upset by how Guatemala’s beautiful landscape was strewn with waste. When she saw some older men filling their used plastic bottles with other plastic waste, the idea of ecobricks was born. She brought the old men’s method forward by promoting their use in constructing people’s homes. Since that time, her NGO Pura Vida Atitlán has built several schools and houses for poorer families in Guatemala. Many other people in Guatemala’s lake Atitlán region have also picked up the idea, and ecobricking has turned into a global movement.
When you went to South Africa for your Holistic Science Master’s degree, you’ve implemented the country’s first ecobrick project : the “Trash to Treasure” festivals in Greyton. The festivals have been held three times now, once a year since 2012. How did you get people interested in ecobricks?
The festival is meant to show local people what they can create with waste materials. To introduce ecobricks, we held competitions, such as time trials to see who could fill up ecobricks the fastest. Or take last year, when we asked everyone to bring an ecobrick as an entrance ticket for the festival. For us, every ecobrick is a bit of trash that is not thrown into the river.
What do you do with all these ecobricks afterwards?
In the first year, we set up four composting toilet blocks with walls made out of ecobricks. Last time, we started building an outdoor classroom. It is a round house with beautiful windows. Friends of mine will now do similar projects in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. My friend Ian George Domisse, an architect who founded the Ecobrick Exchange, is currently working on a beautiful two-storey school building, the biggest eco-brick project in South Africa.
“We don’t have the problem figured out either – we’ve just found a more sophisticated way to sweep our trash under the carpet.”
It seems that most ecobrick projects take place in the developing world or in emerging markets. With your more recent “Upcycle Santa Fe” project, you wanted to take the movement to the US. Isn’t recycling and waste management already working rather well in the US?
The first times I travelled to developing countries, I was upset by the way people dealt with their trash: They burn piles on the side of the road, they fill the rivers with it, they fill their streets. But when I came back to the US, I realized that we don’t have the problem figured out either – we’ve just found a more sophisticated way to sweep our trash under the carpet.
There’s a centralized waste-collection system, and most trash is taken to huge landfills...
Exactly, and we all know that these landfills are going to leak sooner or later. So why are we doing that? Can’t we come up with a good system? I think we can, but this system would go against everything we’re used to.
“We have the methods and the know-how to upcycle each and every piece of waste produced in this area.”
So what would this system be like?
We need a decentralized waste management system with many smaller local waste management centers. They wouldn’t have to deal with huge piles of trash, but only with the local waste materials. One of them would be in charge of my city block here in Santa Fe, for example. Let’s assume about 100 families and 5 businesses reside here. We have the methods and the know-how to upcycle each and every piece of waste produced in this area: Cans, glass bottles and metals can be used for energy production or to build solar heaters, food leftovers can fertilize the soil. We’d only need to do a bit more research and have enough manpower to make this system happen.
This would really be a huge step. But isn’t recycling at least a step in the right direction?
Here in New Mexico, most of the waste is sent to recycling centers in Texas and California first, then shipped overseas. Imagine: 98% by volume of recyclables collected at Friedman Recycling, the biggest facility in the state in New Mexico, is sent overseas for processing. So we have recycling centers that don’t recycle anything. They send everything to China and Korea and thereby contribute to global warming. That’s completely stupid and ridiculous. And then we even tell developing countries to do the same. Recycling certainly isn’t the solution.
“The story of plastic recycling is one of the biggest green-washing campaigns in the history of the world.”
Officially, all plastic trash is sent to Asia because they have the means to recycle it. What exactly are they doing with it?
The story of plastic recycling is one of the biggest green-washing campaigns in the history of the world. First of all, we burn so much fossil fuel for the transport. Then the material is melted down and mixed with new chemicals to make sure it has the same properties as before. This is a very toxic procedure. The “new” plastic is used for production again, and hooray – it might come back to the US as your child’s new drinking bottle, loaded with all these new chemicals that can badly harm your kid! You might even be happy that it’s labeled BPA-free, but do you have any clue what other chemicals have been used?
All this sounds as if people in the US would have every reason to strongly press for change. Nevertheless, you’ve faced some challenges with the “Upcycle Santa Fe” project. Which ones?
The work is going slower than I would have wished for. Mainly because it isn’t easy to convince enough people to actually make an ecobrick. Many people are most cheering on the hard work we're doing, but that doesn't mean they are going to put their plastic in an ecobrick at the end of the day. I think that we will need to focus on building samples and doing research and development for the next five to ten years. Besides, in the US, we have to cope with strict regulations that don’t easily support innovation, especially when it comes to buildings.
Do you think that people aren’t ready for it yet?
I’m convinced that we need to do more work to capture people’s imaginations; we have to show them the potential of ecobricks by building beautiful objects. Once we have built two pretty houses that look just like your standard home, and once we’ve tested them to make sure they meet the safety standards, we’re going be taken seriously. We’re heading in that direction now, and we always have some ongoing projects of course.
For example, you are now working with the Santa Fe Watershed association on their river clean-up project.
We’re one of the teams cleaning up the riverbank now, but instead of bringing the waste to the landfill, we are making ecobricks out of it. We’ve also built a wall out of Ubuntu-Blox here in Santa Fe. Ubuntu blocks are similar to ecobricks, but a lot bigger. Our next big project is to build a tiny home on four wheels that you can attach to a truck. It will be built out of ecobricks and reclaimed materials. I have tons of ideas and could tell you a hundred dreams!
What do you think, is the idea of upcycling and especially of ecobricking going to last? Will it go global, or will it stay a nice local option for rural communities in developing countries?
I’m sure everyone will have to come around eventually. We’re producing more and more trash, which is not going anywhere. Even if we burn the plastic, the toxic gases and ashes are here to stay.
Do you think developing countries will one day show the industrialized world the right way to go?
Yes, why not? Places that don’t have an established waste management system are in the best position to do things right from the beginning. This can be a great opportunity for developing communities. Just think of it: If a developing country’s government calls the UN waste management authorities, they tell them to take out a huge loan from the IMF to set up a massive recycling centre and a landfill – a recycling centre that sends waste to China, a landfill that poisons the ground, and a loan they’ll spend ages paying back. Ecobricking is a real option here: Instead of all this craziness, people can build an upcycling centre and deal with all their waste materials in a local way.
Places that don’t have an established waste management system are in the best position to do things right from the beginning.
Joseph Stodgel is a fellow of the DoSchool's Sustainable Cup challenge.