A way to sequester plastic
January 7, 2020 9:01 PM   Subscribe

What is an ecobrick? It's a plastic bottle packed with used, clean, and dry plastic until solid and dense, and then used as a building material. It's a way to keep already existing plastic out of the environment, turn it into something useful, and encourage individuals to be mindful of their plastic consumption. Anyone can make an ecobrick, and ecobricks can be used to build all kinds of structures, from garden walls to composting toilets. How to make an ecobrick. Ecobrick building guidelines. posted by sunset in snow country (35 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
It began in Guatemala, and now a South African town is using recycling bottles as building material as part of an inspirational and regenerative campaign against rubbish

Well it kinda also started 50 plus years ago as well, but I love the idea.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:22 PM on January 7 [3 favorites]

I'm happy to be corrected by someone who knows more about construction or garbage, but this...seems like nonsense?

The resulting bricks will be highly variable and therefor difficult to use at scale. At least in the U.S., most people live in urban areas and need to be housed at densities that cannot be constructed with ecobricks. Certainly, I wouldn't want to step foot in a multi-story ecobrick building. I don't think it's a coincidence that all the example buildings I can find appear to be single-story, possibly single-room things in under-developed areas.

Also, how is it possible that the best use of a concerned citizen's time is to sit at home using a little bamboo stick to pack crisp packets into a soda bottle? Why is that his job now?

(Highly speculative aside: I don't know anything about ecobricks, but the motion looks similar to threading meat onto a skewer, and I happen to know that if your job is to skewer meat all day you're at risk for some wicked RSIs.)

Again, I'm very aware that I'm speaking scornfully about a technique at the intersection of two fields where I have no formal training. I'm happy to be corrected here. I would like nothing more than for this to be an effective strategy for managing our waste stream. God knows we could use one.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:05 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]

A lot of glass bricks blow out on one side or the other. Would that be likely to happen as the bricks wear over time?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:15 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]

Not sure whether this is a serious attempt to sequester plastic waste or stealth greenwashing. I have suspicions.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:22 PM on January 7 [16 favorites]

I heard about this about an hour before making the post, so definitely open to being corrected about the value of ecobricks (I do have some doubts). But it struck me as sort of an interesting small-scale crunchy creative thing, more suited to building a shed or garden planters or a doghouse than actual housing. If anything, I find it an interesting thing to do with all the plastic crap that's floating around anyway. I'm trying to minimize my use of plastic in 2020 and I'm tempted to make one single ecobrick just to see how long it takes me to fill one up, and then keep it as a conversation piece.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:30 PM on January 7 [6 favorites]

meaty shoe puppet - I'm not a builder so I'm happy to be corrected too, but I have a little bit of firsthand experience in managing a home build...

Many houses in the world - and virtually all in the part of Australia where I live - use what's called timber frame construction. The timber bears all the structural load. The brick veneer element is purely a cosmetic "shell" that has no structural purpose. In fact, it's attached to the timber frame so the frame keeps the bricks from toppling over. The brick isn't even used for weather protection - brick itself is porous and will allow water ingress. Basically the house consists of a timber frame for structural integrity, wrapped in a thin waterproof membrane for waterproofing, and then layered on top with bricks for cosmetic looks and to protect the membrane from being breached. Why use expensive brick? I guess because it looks "traditional" and people like it - honestly you could just put on a styrofoam exterior and have superior waterproofing and heat insulating properties for far cheaper.

I suspect using some ecobricks to replace the regular bricks outside a timber frame brick veneer house would be just fine, it would just look a bit kooky. The world is undergoing a sand shortage right now, and brick construction uses a lot of sand, and replacing it with waste plastic would be economical.
posted by xdvesper at 10:57 PM on January 7 [15 favorites]

My initial thought is maybe cut the bottles into strips and mix into straw-bale blocks for added rigidity. But this is coming from someone who still has nightmares about that one time I had to patch drywall.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:57 PM on January 7 [1 favorite]

At the risk of being somewhat of a derail or hailcorporate comment, direct commercial recycling of plastics is quite common in mass manufacturing. For example, each Ford Ecosport SUV uses 470 recycled plastic bottles - the bottles and caps are shredded, heated to 260 degrees celsius and melted down to produce thin fibers which are then spun into yarn and woven into carpets. Ford claims to have recycled 1.2 billion plastic bottles this way.

I've seen figures indicating that recycled plastics cost 10% to 50% less than virgin plastic, with numerous components in current production cars already consisting of between 25% to 100% recycled plastics.
posted by xdvesper at 11:10 PM on January 7 [5 favorites]

Not many people in places like the US are going to want (or even be permitted) to live in homes made with this stuff.

And... could a scheme like this just encourage richer countries to feel better about shipping trash to poorer countries (or to their own poorer regions) rather than properly controlling the production of plastic waste? "Every time you discard plastic packaging, you are helping to build homes for the poor! Have another Coke!"
posted by pracowity at 3:46 AM on January 8 [4 favorites]

The world is undergoing a sand shortage right now

posted by subdee at 4:52 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

I have many, many questions about their financial model after reading the documentation on the site, particularly the Intention Map. In the end, it all seems perfectly harmless, if unlikely to change the world - they aim to make most of their money off training workshops, for which they apparently charge $1400 per trainer, and one of their other main income streams is going to be selling these "EarthWands" that are highly optimized sticks for stuffing your bottles full of plastic refuse.

It may interest and/or entertain you to spend some time on the website of co-founder Russell Maier, the "artist with a background in philosophy" who generated this concept "on a vacation gone wrong" in the Northern Philippines. Maier's philosophy of "supra-sexual co-creativity" posits that "creative artistic energy is inseparable from the sexual energy that powers the continued thriving and continuation of live. Artistic creativity is a manifestation of our life force / sexual energies. Sexual energy that is consciously channelled between two attracted individuals, we call ‘supra sexual’. In this way we can dive into and mine the primal forces of sexual attraction and direct them to all sorts of splendid co-creations." Presumably that's what he's doing with his business and life partner Ami, who provides the

Puh-lenty more where that came from. I mean, mazel tov. There are a lot of ideas out there like this - this one just seems to have the benefit of plenty of marketing and startup-lingo attention lavished on it and all of the associated websites in the large Russell Maier web universe.Between the mystico-sexism, the white patriarch modernizing the jungle Mosquito-Coast style through the labor of brown people, and the techbro vision, well, it's not something I would rush to support or promote, but sure, if you'd like to pay for a wooden stick or training or one of his other innovations, go for it. It has the vibe of family money or a trust fund at work, some friends-and-family VC, or maybe he's have just figured out how to live cheaply and do whatever he wants.
posted by Miko at 5:03 AM on January 8 [16 favorites]

The world is undergoing a sand shortage right now

Actually true.
posted by Miko at 5:04 AM on January 8 [21 favorites]

Some of the primary schools around me did this the other year, stuffing crisp (potato chip) packets (which are non-recyclable) into 2-litre pop bottles (which are recyclable). A lot of the parental conversations this generated focused on the fact that both sources of material were from things the schools are also strongly encouraging children to consume less of (crisps/potato chips and sugary carbonated drinks), so in fact, the better thing was perhaps to just have fewer packets and bottles in the first place, especially as children soon found that you need a *lot* of packets to properly fill the bottle, leading to at least a few requests at home to buy more crisps.
posted by dowcrag at 5:11 AM on January 8 [11 favorites]

The world is undergoing a sand shortage right now

Yes, and making concrete from sand means making cement for the concrete, and that is a process that contributes to global warming:
The cement industry is one of the two largest producers of carbon dioxide (CO2), creating up to 8% of worldwide man-made emissions of this gas, of which 50% is from the chemical process and 40% from burning fuel.
So a different construction process could be beneficial to the environment, but I am not convinced that using plastic bottles full of other plastic waste is the answer.
posted by pracowity at 5:42 AM on January 8 [5 favorites]

As a hobby or artistic endeavor, or making a built-environment statement about plastic waste, this makes some sense. But it only works if the value of labor is zero -- valuing your time even slightly would make other construction options look a lot better. That is a lot of time twisting and packing for each "brick"; there are much more efficient options.

I am with Miko on thinking it would be interesting to know more about the financial model, and I'm not a fan of how they are promoting this as an actual contributor to ecological improvements, but overall it seems mostly harmless other than wasting people's money.

Thinking cynically (and less harmlessly), the plastics industry might be smart to latch onto these kinds of concepts and promote the heck out of them to help deflect focus from the overall wastestream and actual reductions and recycling of plastic. Someone above mentioned greenwashing, and this is the kind of project that could definitely be used that way even if that wasn't the original intent.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 AM on January 8 [4 favorites]

This plastic is being held out of the waste stream temporarily, probably briefly, but eventually the walls will deteriorate and the bricks will be trash. They will then contribute to the total load of plastic in the environment. The same actually seems to hold true for the recycling of plastic in general including the plastic timber that has become quite prevalent at our local building supply store and the plastic fabrics ditto at the sewing store. I suspect that the only solutions are to chemically dismantle the plastic (is this possible?) or to just stop making it.
posted by Botanizer at 6:02 AM on January 8 [7 favorites]

I make eco bricks out of non recyclable plastic waste. I do it because otherwise this stuff would end up on the (nearby) landfill. I already do everything I can to avoid buying things packaged in non recyclable plastic, but it's impossible to avoid it completely. I am very aware that this is not the solution for our tremendous plastic pollution problem, especially as I spend nearly every morning picking waste out of the water at our local nature reserve estuary. I have found a local group that collect data on this waste and use that to pressure the companies responsible, as well as the government to introduce legislation.
Back to the ecobbrick, I don't think it's the solution to the big problems in the long term, but it's a solution to a small part of the problem. As for the use it's put to, in my part of the world, the kind of houses that are being built are maybe not what an American would even consider as a house? The choice being made is not between an eco brick House and a brick house (or whatever ideal building material you have in mind) but between an eco brick house and a shack made from plastic sheeting and corrugated metal, if you're lucky enough to have access to those.

I have looked into the construction methods involved and it looks pretty good. I have my doubts about the long term viability of this, and the hype puts my teeth on edge, but it's something I can do to make my immediate environment better.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, and we need many solutions.
posted by Zumbador at 6:08 AM on January 8 [23 favorites]

(the time spent packing a brick is trivial. It takes only slightly longer to push a bit of plastic into a bottle, than opening by rubbish bin and chucking the bit of plastic in. I do it as I go on, a bit at a time, not packing a whole bottle at once )
posted by Zumbador at 6:13 AM on January 8 [4 favorites]

Earthships commonly use glass bottles and aluminum cans similarly (without plastic filling AFAIK), as well as using tires for structural walls of course.

UV exposure will degrade plastic bottles, so you'd want to paint or cob or whatever over them.
posted by joeyh at 6:31 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

It occurs me that I'm influenced by my experience of living less than a kilometre from a large informal settlement that is suffering from extreme lack of access to even the most basic building materials.
Our government has utterly failed to provide even the most basic housing for thousands upon thousands of my fellow South Africans.
We need many different initiatives, including changing building regulations to allow more innovation in building techniques and materials, skills training, and so on and on.
Eco bricks ease the immediate, critical needs of my neighbours to build a decent, insulated, sturdy shelters right now, before winter comes around again.
posted by Zumbador at 6:31 AM on January 8 [18 favorites]

ctrl-F "Fire" no hits.

I'm not saying it's a good or bad idea, and don't know enough about it to know whether it's greenwashing or not, but highly dense plastic as a primary building material has got to make for exceptionally copious toxic fumes if it catches fire. House fires cause enough toxic smoke that the frame of the house itself being largely plastic sounds like not a great idea.
posted by tclark at 7:10 AM on January 8 [8 favorites]

Supra-sexual co-creativity

Y I K E S definitely missed that when poking through the site. That'll learn me.

Zumbador, thanks for sharing, I appreciate the real-life perspective!

I definitely think something like this has to go hand in hand with waste reduction efforts. Luckily that seems to be made pretty clear in all the sources I've seen. Someone thinking "Oh yay, I'm doing such a good thing by shipping off all my plastics to developing countries to build shacks" would definitely be missing the point.
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:20 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

A somewhat related story (previously). Obviously very different from bottles used as bricks but similar in the sense of using the recycled plastics.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:39 AM on January 8

xdvesper, I doubt many residents of Australia would currently be comfortable with styrofoam as a cladding material.

The cladding used on Grenfell Tower was plastic sanwiched between aluminium.
posted by Kiwi at 7:44 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

xdvesper, I doubt many residents of Australia would currently be comfortable with styrofoam as a cladding material.

Not only that, the most common wall (the one attached to the timber framing) is plywood or MDF if you are lucky and durock or something worse if you are not. Durock is exterior drywall. Also saying bricks are porous is kind of correct, but not really when discussing a torrential downpour or high winds that would tear up those interior materials in no time. And none of those interior wall materials (durock, plywood, or mdf) are at all water resistent.

Half of the interior sandwich materials are not terribly different than styrofoam. If you are lucky enough to have external insulation, it is thick styrofoam - the exterior cladding, whether bricks, wood, or cement board absolutely are holding your home together and protecting it from weather.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:56 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

ctrl-F "Fire" no hits.

They have a page that addresses that. They said it's not very burny if you pack them tight and so on. But the page is down (for me, anyway) so that's just from memory.
posted by pracowity at 8:02 AM on January 8

as children soon found that you need a *lot* of packets to properly fill the bottle, leading to at least a few requests at home to buy more crisps.

say no more
posted by elkevelvet at 8:42 AM on January 8

> the page is down (for me, anyway)

Me too.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:29 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Jesus Christ, the people who are worried about the flammability or are strongly insinuating that if it doesn’t solve all the problems then it isn’t worth doing or that it will somehow increase demand for wrappers and plastic bottles .... I thought I was cynical.

If anyone is saying this is a silver bullet, that person is wrong... of course. But the fire risk of something like the use cases I’m seeing and have helped build before (small single room storage or dwelling units or retaining walls) is extremely low. Sequestering value is not as good as avoidance of course but this is way better than the landfill for folks in need of building material options to offset cost or bulk or transport woes. If this idea somehow makes you want to use more plastic single use containers or allow children to do the same then I suggest a strong re-evaluation of your logical abilities and cognitive dissonance level.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:30 PM on January 8 [5 favorites]

Yeah, as the guy who introduced the whole greenwashing thing into the discussion, I just want to recant. I did not understand the issues around plastic in the developing world or the specific needs that could be met by creative actions. Zumbador is an inspiration and has caused me to rethink a lot of my assumptions.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:27 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]

I'm all for diverting plastics away from landfill/dumping in whatever manner possible. I'm collecting some household plastics (wow it's a lot) for possible use in making sculptures, yes, pathetic, I know. (Recycling plastic is complicated, another discussion).
posted by ovvl at 5:11 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

diverting plastics away from landfill/dumping in whatever manner possible

I tend to believe they're safer there, though. Capped. Doing anything else with them merely delays their deposit as refuse, doesn't end it, and also increases the likelihood that through some process they're going to end up back in the environment, floating around loose, and damaging spaces and creatures.
posted by Miko at 5:21 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]

Nah, Plastic debris will always divert thoughout our environment. Best case future scenario is something like that foma stuff in 'Always Coming Home', some annoying wierd crud that washes ashore that future generations just sigh about.
posted by ovvl at 6:07 PM on January 8

I suppose it's not really sequestering because it really just kicks the problem down the road, but I always wanted to try making rope out of plastic bottles.
posted by ambulocetus at 6:28 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

On a long enough timeframe the only thing that matters with plastics and the environment is throughput. In shorter timeframes, putting plastic refuse to good use is good. In the long term it all ends up in the environment and we're starting to learn the costs of that.

The real solution is reducing the output of plastics that will eventually and inevitably end up in the environment.

In the shorter term, things that can keep plastics from fouling the environment in macroscopic ways are a positive good. But sadly, plastics will inevitably degrade and become a part of the microplastic problem. Presumably, life will adapt, but that is one more uncontrolled experiment our world cannot afford.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:48 PM on January 8 [5 favorites]

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