How to green your kitchen part 2 – in which we finally write about Ecobricks

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

More balls please, Wimbledon – time to ban plastic bottles?

It’s that time of year when we all sit on our sofas and offer our wise commentary on the best tennis players in the world locking horns at Wimbledon. I haven’t watched much, but enjoyed the Federer-Nadal semi-final and will be watching this afternoon’s men’s final.

Wimbledon have been under pressure for some time though to rid the event of plastic bottles – Glastonbury and Lord’s cricket ground have managed it, so why can’t the All England Lawn Tennis Club follow suit? There’s a petition here, and it seems a pretty straightforward argument.

If there are, say, 967 matches in a Wimbledon tournament (singles, doubles, qualifiers, juniors, wheelchair competitors and seniors/invitation doubles – yes I sat and added them up), and every player gets given 2 bottles per match, this is 4658 plastic bottles for the players, at an absolute minimum. The carbon footprint of a plastic bottle is estimated to be 82.8g of carbon dioxide per 500ml bottle, so this adds up to 385kg, just for the players. An estimated 420,000 bottles are used across the whole tournament, which equates to an enormous 34 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (this totally might be an incorrect calculation – my maths is crap – but it’s loads).

But it’s ok, because they’re recycled, and recyclable.

Evian have been the official water supplier at Wimbledon since 2008 and renewed their sponsorship deal in 2017, to extend until 2022. They’ve promised to make all their bottles from recycled plastic by 2025, and this year at Wimbledon they are piloting bottles made from 100% recycled PET; this is an attempt to move from a linear model to a circular one (another article here on this from the sexily-named Packaging News – don’t tell me I never give you anything). Evian are also working with Loop (remember them from the Terracycle post?) to enable a continuous loop for recycling at high volume.

So I was thinking about this, and whether it does make it all okay, or whether it’s yet another big green wash to make us believe that Evian are super-eco and ethical, while they’re actually just trying to get us to buy more pointless bottles of overpriced water. Of course it’s better that the water bottles are recycled and recyclable, keeping plastic out of landfill and the ocean, but what about the carbon footprint of making them in the first place, and the onward recycling? Wouldn’t it be better if they didn’t exist at all?

What are the alternatives for Wimbledon, and similar sporting events? Provide all the players with Evian-branded reusable water bottles? Lots of them seem to be decanting their own energy drinks into Evian bottles anyway, rather than drinking water on court. But what if a player forget to bring their regulation Evian bottle to a match – do they get given another one? What’s the carbon footprint of making x-00 reusable plastic bottles? (I haven’t got the time to calculate how many players compete in the tournament, sorry!) Or should Wimbledon ditch the Evian sponsorship and ask players and spectators to bring their own bottles? (And sell Wimbledon-branded ones to those who forget?) Would that impact on ticket prices – and should we even care about that? Are they contractually able to divorce themselves from Evian anyway, after extending the sponsorship deal?

Or have we forgotten that plastic is evil, and we should only be using stainless steel? Except you have to reuse a stainless steel bottle 500 times to cancel out the carbon impact of its energy-intensive manufacture. I can’t find many sources for a similar calculation for how many times a plastic reusable water bottle would have to be used, although this article suggests it might be as few as three times.

To be fair, Wimbledon seem to be doing quite a lot of impressive work to improve the sustainability of the event and I’m sure they will respond to the petition in due course, but it’s food for thought on our own water-bottle usage. I’ve got a brilliant pink plastic reusable bottle which I love, but it took me a while to find the right one which didn’t leak. My husband was given a stainless steel bottle at a festival recently, which he didn’t use much as he had brought his plastic one – so does he owe that one 500 uses to justify its existence? Lots of people don’t want to buy expensive reusable bottles for their kids, as they get lost or smashed. Nothing is simple, it seems!

I’ve got no definitive position on this, other than that we should use what we’ve got and look after it, so answers on a (recycled) postcard, please.

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of a beautiful bit of ocean (taken at the Paros Philoxenia hotel, one of my favourite places on this magnificent planet), to remind us what we’re doing all this for.