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

Terracycle – terribly good, or terribly bad?

Who is this creature with terrible claws, and terrible teeth in its terrible jaws? Oh help, oh no…. it’s a Facebook eco group sniping at people for trying their best. Scherioushly…

So I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the current #WarOnPlastic agenda becoming so popular has caused some long-term environmentalists to be a bit annoyed that they’re not quite so alternative anymore. Some of them seem to be using the anonymity of the internet to shoot people down in flames who are new to the mission and maybe don’t fully understand the complexity of it all. Some of this is valid but just maybe ill-phrased (e.g. do you really know what’s happening to your recycling?), but some of it is just plain unnecessary. For example, a recent post I saw of someone celebrating the introduction of paper straws in Tesco was met with a bunch of people asking the poster why they needed straws in the first place (maybe a fair point, but also potentially ablist), then criticising the plastic bottles of fizzy drinks behind the straws in the photograph – which the original poster may or may not have been buying anyway. Blah. It’s pretty boring really and gets in the way of useful information sharing and mutual encouragement for people making changes to help the planet.

Anyway…. back to the point. Terracycle. I discovered this quite recently, as a new drop-off point has been set up very near our house. This article is a really useful summary of what it’s all about – essentially, Terracycle partner with big brands to set up recycling programmes for waste which isn’t accepted by most kerbside recycling services. There are local drop-off points at churches, schools, community centres etc. and the recyclers can earn points which turn into charitable donations. Brilliant.

We were excited to find that our local drop-off point takes pet food pouches. Our (non-vegan) cat has the most expensive cat food in the world, special medicated stuff for his troublesome bladder and kidneys. I can’t give him cheaper canned stuff, with more easily recycled packaging, as it would make him ill and cost us a huge amount of money to keep him alive, again. So these pouches are non-negotiable plastic use for us while he’s still shuffling across this mortal coil. Additionally, they collect crisp and snack packets, bread bags and various other things. There’s also a national contact lens recycling scheme, with collection points at opticians. Again, this is non-negotiable plastic use for me (blind as a bat, crap peripheral vision in glasses, plus, you know, vanity) and I’ve felt guilty about it for years, so hooray.

Terracylcle say that they recycle 97% of the waste they receive, and promise that nothing goes to landfill (some is reused or composted). This is how they do it. I tweeted them directly about the contact lens scheme and they said that the plastic is used to make products such as benches, and “mostly” recycled in the UK, “rarely” in Europe.

So far so good. Then I stepped down the internet rabbit hole. Terracycle is perpetuating the problem, getting into bed with big corporations (Nestle, PepsiCo, Walkers) to keep us consuming – Walkers want you to keep eating crisps, Terracycle want you to keep eating crisps, you want to keep eating crisps – so if a guilt-free solution to your crisp eating can be found, everyone’s a winner. Except we keep making more and more plastic, downcycling it into products that will end up in landfill in the end, and there’s no pressure on manufacturers to develop better packaging, and no pressure on us to change our ways. This article explains a bit more about the business model, and says that Terracycle is a profiteering middle-man (they don’t actually own any processing plants themselves). Even Wikipedia contains some accusations of green-washing, and a fellow blogger is particularly scathing here.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, as I’ve been sorting through our stash of stuff for drop-off, and trying to balance out the conflicting views I’ve seen on this. My conclusions, for what they’re worth, are as follows:

Yes, Terracycle is a business, trying to make money. We live in a capitalist society, like it or fight it. They are guaranteeing to recycle stuff, though, in comparison with our own local authorities, who have no audit trail of what has happened to huge amounts of exported waste. Yes, it’s a lot of green-washing from big corporates, but they are funding the recycling and preventing this stuff going to landfill or being incinerated, and it does benefit local charities and schools. Also the soon-to-be-launched Loop programme, described in this interview with Terracycle founder Tom Szaky, looks really interesting. I think he’s right when he says that consumers want to live a waste-free life but won’t sacrifice on affordability and convenience. We’re all clamouring for big business to do something to make the change, so maybe this is the beginning of progress?

Maybe I’m hugely naive or poorly-informed about capitalism and consumerism, and I should be more radical, but I am going to carry on collecting for our local drop-off point and saving up my contact lenses.

I agree we have to focus on reducing consumption and analysing what we really do need in our lives; the faff of separating out the waste does make you more mindful of this, and about what could be reduced or reused before being recycled. For example bread bags – could I take these to the supermarket and use for loose veg? Could I use them instead of freezer bags? (which I use about 897 times before throwing away anyway). Does my husband REALLY need to eat a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate every day with his packed lunch? Yes, yes he does. Unless I do more baking, of course. Which would correlate directly with more CBeebies (causing brain-rot, of course), and/or less naptime blogging – which would make you lot sad, and interfere with my plans to become the next Jack Monroe (she’s ace, by the way) and change the world, one rambling post at a time.