So I’ve been threatening to write about ecobricks for a while, and a discussion on a Facebook group last night prompted me to get on with it, once and for all. I’ve been feeling conflicted about the ecobrick concept for a while, and I’m hoping that writing about it will bring me nearer to a conclusive decision.
Here’s a summary article about the whole ecobrick concept. Essentially, you take all your non-recyclable plastic, chop it up small and shove it into an empty plastic bottle (which has to be clean and scrupulously dry to prevent mould forming), to a specified density. It can then be used as a building block. The idea is that this prevents this plastic from entering landfill, being incinerated (creating CO2 emissions) or ending up in the ocean; effectively, it locks the plastic away from the ecosystem and transforms it into a useful material which is beneficial to the community, and maximises plastic’s durable nature. As I keep on coming back to, I think that plastic itself is not the enemy; the overuse of single use plastic and the disposal thereof is problematic, but long-term durable plastic, looked after and used sensibly, is actually pretty useful. (Remember how much I love tupperware, for example).
Critical to the ecobrick mission is the idea that the very time-consuming process of washing and drying your plastic is a meditation on your use of single-use plastic, and should prompt you to consider how you can reduce and refuse, rather than using the ecobrick as a form of appeasing your conscience for your plastic use.
Here’s a picture of our plastic management system – it’s a sock drier I think, hanging up in our kitchen at the moment (conveniently next to the cleaning cupboard, in a clockwise direction in the spirit of How to green your kitchen part 1). When it’s sunny we hang it outside on the washing line – our neighbours must think we’re pretty mad to be drying our salad bags in the sunshine. Some of the stuff hanging on here at the moment is actually for Terracycle (I’ll come back to Terracycle another time, as I’m having continuing qualms about it since my original post), and the big freezer bag I will reuse until it disintegrates. The process has really helped us to review what we’re using and make different choices, such as almost completly stopping using microrice and switching to bigger pots of yoghurt and washing powder in a box rather than tablets in plastic casing.
BUT I’ve got some problems with the concept.
Firstly, it’s really, really hard to find a project to take your bricks. Theoretically, there’s a network called GoBrik which exists to help you find where you can drop off your bricks to become part of a community project to build garden furniture or playground equipment for example. But a lot of the projects listed seem to be defunct, and people don’t reply to messages of inquiry, or there’s nothing local available. However, the official Ecobrick stance encourages people to take responsibility for their own plastic and retain their bricks themselves by making something for their own home or garden. The idea is that the “throwaway” idea of giving away your waste to someone else reduces your sense of responsibility and is the same as simply putting everything in the recycling bin without thinking about what really happens to it. Do we believe our local authorities are actually processing everything for recycling, or do we suspect that hard-to-recycle plastic is being sent overseas and ending up in the ocean? Equally, do we know that the project where we drop off our ecobrick is going to use it responsibly, to the end of its life?
But what if you haven’t got the time or the skills to build something yourself? If you actively seek a project to drop your bricks off to on the Facebook network, the response can be quite aggressive, with lots of people telling you to make something yourself rather than outsourcing the problem. In fact, the aggressive nature of the Ecobrick Facebook community is pretty off-putting in itself. So you end up with a bunch of bricks in your shed and no idea what to do with them.
Say you do find a project, or build a planter out of your bricks for your own garden. What happens in 500 years? Will they explode and spread tiny particles of plastic everywhere? Is it a time bomb? Would it have been better for it to be incinerated after all? Similarly worryingly, I know of some projects in schools which have been run by volunteers who aren’t properly clued up about the density requirements, so they may well be making structures for children to use which aren’t safely load-bearing, or using bricks that will go mouldy and degrade because people haven’t been instructed clearly enough on how rigorous the cleaning process has to be.
I also see scarily frequent posts on social media talking about how ecobricks can be “sent to developing countries for building projects” – I’m assuming that this has become mythologised because the concept originated in Indonesia, but I feel that this perpetuates the post-colonial approach to waste disposal, when we’ve seen the consequences of western/developed countries sending their unwanted waste to developing countries that haven’t got the infrastructure to deal with it properly, and the environmental carnage this is causing. (Sorry if I’m using the wrong words, it’s difficult to know what the least patronising phraseology is).
So I don’t feel too great about Ecobricks at the moment. I’m still trying to find a project, either in London or near to where other family members live to enable drop-off, while being mindful of the need to avoid complacency and a “giving away the problem” mentality. I may end up making a crap plant pot out of ours in the end (I am notoriously shit at artistic endeavors), then bequeathing it through the next 25 generations of my family… Unless we can start breeding plastic-eating worms to deal with the problem for us. But I do think it’s a useful process in monitoring your single-use plastic use, so for now we will carry on doing it. And suffering the very unbeautiful plastic sock sculpture in our kitchen as penance for our plastic sins.
This is a contentious topic and I would love to know other people’s thoughts on this. So press the comment button and argue with me please! (in a respectful way, of course – unless I’ve inadvertently said something really daft).
Peace and love xx
if. used in this country suppose ok but if they have to be transported elsewhere in the world this defeats the object of ecobricks. at the end of the day who is going toggle you a mortgage on building built with eco bricks what are they intended for ?
They’re intended for things like sheds, playhouses, playground equipment, plant pots etc. They’re used for residential buildings overseas where building regs are different, I believe, but I think there’s issues with fire safety potentially as well as the plastic degrading in the sunlight. I know the UK ecobricks trainers don’t condone sending bricks overseas so I’m not even sure how you would do it!
I loved reading your post because you very eloquently voice all my own misgivings about ecobricks: hooray, I’m not alone in the minefield of trying-to-do-the-right-thing! At one level, I think the concept is a good one but there’s certainly no community collection here (rural northern Spain) so I’d have to devise my own creative project and as we don’t have much plastic waste (which I know is a good thing) I can see it being years before I could build anything meaningful – plus as you say, who knows what problems we could be storing up for the future, anyway? I’m still of the opinion reducing single use plastic is the real key, sending our rubbish abroad most definitely isn’t! Love the sock drier, though! 🙂
Thanks for writing so lucidly about this tricky eco brickness. It feels a bit like pushing a boulder (or, er, brick?) uphill at the moment, and reading your thoughts give solidarity and lots to ponder. 🙂 Thank you!
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It’s very hard to know what to do for the best, isn’t it? Personally I’m suspicious of “you should never” and “you should always” statements in every walk of life, and never intend to write about eco stuff with any sort of didacticism (spelling?!). These issues are all so new, and so massive – we are all navigating our way through a minefield when we try to weigh up these changes. Much love and thanks for reading xx
I have never heard of these things. In California, we have a 10 cent deposit on big PET clear bottles, and returning them to a recycling business will earn you 5 cents. So, I think many of these bottles get recycled. (I just looked for the data. Over 60% of #1 PET bottles are recycled.)