With a world currently suffocating in plastic, ecobricks are fast becoming a quick fix to eliminating plastic waste whilst also providing a cheap and effective building material. There are ecobricking communities emerging all over the world and various projects have been set up to utilise the plastic within plastic capsules.
Indoors they are being trussed together and transformed into chairs or tables whilst outdoors bonded with cob they can be used as building blocks for anything from garden benches to houses.
Over 37,000 registered ecobricks have been made so far worldwide and the movement is growing rapidly as people become more plastic aware.
WHAT ARE ECOBRICKS?
According to the Global Ecobrick Alliance (GEA) ecobricks are an empty PET plastic bottle stuffed rigid with un-recyclable plastics such as food wrappers, plastic bags, plastic food containers or Styrofoam. It’s not a simple process. The plastic has to be clean and dry and is best cut up into pieces so it can be packed tightly into the bottles as they need to be a minimum weight so they are sturdy enough to build with.
The minimum density is .33g per ml so a 600ml bottle should weigh at least 200g whilst a 1.5 litre bottle needs to come in at around 500g. Too soft they can collapse whilst damp or unclean plastic can create mould and methane forming inside the bricks.
The GEA was initially set up in 2012 by Canadian artist and inventor Russell Maier who pioneered an ecobricking network in the northern Philippines simply as a way of using his home plastic in a constructive way.
Some 50 years ago, the Igorot people (whom he lived with) didn’t even have a word for ‘trash’ as the idea of something worthless did not exist. Everything was just locally made using natural and organic resources and then reused or re-purposed.
But in the modern world plastic arrived so the Igorot people learnt to re-use this material. They fashioned plastic sachets and straws into bags or mats whilst schools and churches began to use ecobricks for building projects.
Russell set about establishing ecobrick schemes in the northern Philippines and it was so successful he has since moved on to Indonesia and other south east Asian countries to educate the communities in utilising their plastic waste more effectively.
Russell Maier said: ““The words ‘trash’ and ‘waste’ are essentially linear judgements. The act of ‘trashing’ an object is a condemnation. We are judging the object to be worthless and no longer fit for a place in our world. Is there any difference between a piece of plastic before it has served its purpose and after? The molecules and atoms are all still the same. The only difference is the word ‘trash’ we’ve labelled it with.
“Ecobricks are fundamentally cradle-to-cradle. Meaning the next life of the ecobrick is planned into the creation that we make out of them. Ecobricks are laid horizontally in cob mortar. The result is a thick and sturdy construction with the cob mortar completely encasing the ecobricks to protect them from UV sunlight or with the exception of exposing the stronger coloured bottom of the ecobrick.
“Protected from UV rays and the elements, the ecobrick will last pretty much forever and because cob is relatively easy to crumble the ecobricks can be extricated from the cob five years or 100 years in the future and reused.”
EVOLVING IN THE UK
Lizzie Wynn is an eco-activist, currently collecting ecobricks to build her own unique home in Wales.
In the past she has used ecobricks to build smaller projects, such as a raised garden bed using 100 bricks, but this is the start of a much bigger and more involved project.
The local community have been busy making ecobricks and she has also set up the Ecobricks North Wales Facebook group page to promote the project as she will need around 1,600 ecobricks for the first building.
Lizzie said: “There are two buildings planned. The first is a shed and will have tyre foundations with rammed earth or gravel and a green roof. The Walipini is still being designed and it will be made mostly from tyres but I expect a good amount of ecobricks will also be used.
“I’ve been using ecobricks for about 10 years now mostly in Spain where I lived previously. I used them as a way to reduce landfill and I found out that they had a name in October last year. I did a talk last year in North Wales on sustainable construction and since then people have been inspired to make them.”
So as an alternative way of construction ecobricks are offering a cheap, viable and effective way of building. But are they a good solution to the plastic problem or is the mountain of bottles just being swept under a cob carpet to emerge hundreds of years down the line to haunt our future generations?
Lizzie added: “We cannot see the future, but we could have a bigger waste plastic problem right now, or we can bank some in buildings. We may have a much better way of dealing with the waste problem in the future.
“Our environment is swamped with plastic at present. Any sensible way to lock it up in a harmless way is helpful. Dismantled materials can still be reused in the future. We can use the waste we have, or we can mine and produce new materials with a high carbon footprint, leaving the waste floating about.
“Building with waste seems a responsible method at present. If we log the use, we can recover it in the future. I am aware that using ecobricks may not always be the best solution, but right now, it’s quite a good one.”
WASTE NOT WANT NOT
GEA’s Russell Maier reckons over 37,000 plastic filled ecobricks have been made around the world so far using over 12,500 kg of plastic. These stats are purely for those registered and logged via gobrik.com. There are 7,000 ecobrickers from 136 countries registered to date with the majority from the UK and the Philippines.
The UK ecobrick facebook page now boasts over 42,000 members and there is also a network of 200 certified GEA trainers who hold ecobricking workshops and create projects to utilise the bricks worldwide.
The ecobrick movement has been most successful in the developing countries where not only are the communities faced with their own waste but have also become a dumping ground for the world’s waste.
In the last 70 years or so a total of 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced. To put that into a visual perspective this is the equivalent of one billion elephants or four million London Eyes. Back in the 1950s around two million metric tons of plastic was produced annually. This has increased to 380 million metric tons this year of which two thirds ends up back in the environment and the oceans.
Only nine per cent of plastic waste is recycled and the other 12 per cent is incinerated. The remaining 79 per cent becomes landfill and waste. And left in the biosphere the plastic doesn’t disappear. It’s photodegradable so it just disintegrates through exposure to light so the plastic molecules remain to contaminate the earth or filter into the rivers and sea. Plastic cannot be absorbed into the circle of life and instead interferes with the planets healthy ecosystem contaminating land and water.
The ecobrick community believe if they can eliminate some of the 79 per cent then they are doing the oceans and environment a huge favour.
The advantages of building with ecobricks means it is simple, cheap and effective. As a material it is strong, durable and immune to mould, rot or water damage and means less construction materials are needed. They are earthquake resistant so shake rather than collapse and can also act as an insulator.
On the other side of the coin, fire proofing methods need to be considered and ongoing research is required to look at sustainability and future uses. Manpower and training also needs to be taken into consideration.
Lucie Mann, the first UK ecobrick trainer who runs New Forest Aquaponics is currently utilising ecobricks at her site to build benches, walls and a compost toilet block.
Lucie said: “If we look after the ecobricks they’ll still be there. The idea is we look after them and treat them as something valuable. We don’t take gold and dump it. Plastic is one of our resources, so let’s look after this gift, change our mind set and make it into something we want to protect and look after.”
AFRICA – WHERE IT BEGAN
Building with used bottles isn’t an entirely new idea. Back in the early 1900s houses were built in Nevada using glass beer bottles due to a shortage at the time in building materials and a need for cheaper housing for the mining community.
Plastic bottle built houses are thought to have originated in Nigeria where communities use bottles filled with sand or soil to build their homes with.
Today there are several construction projects active in Asia, Africa and Central America via EcoTec, an NGO founded by German born Andreas Froese, now based in Mexico, who now runs workshops to train people to build with plastic bottles.
Andreas developed the technique in Honduras back in the year 2000 and has since helped set up various housing projects. One of his students is Martial Zohoungbogbo who has utilised waste plastic bottles to construct several projects in the district of Accra in Ghana.
Martial and his British wife Jane launched the Kokrobite Chiltern Centre in 2004. It is a small grass roots NGO about an hour west of Accra centre which helps children and young people access education.
Kokrobite is a huge fishing community and there is a lack of education mainly due to costs involved and also because many children are needed at home to help generate income for their family. The centre was set up to help provide funds so the children could attend school and also create a place for additional classes and activities. The centre supplies the kids with lunch money, uniforms and stationary plus it helps the local schools with facilities and volunteer assistance.
Ghana is swamped in plastic waste. Capital city Accra produces an estimated 300 tonnes of plastic waste daily and less than two per cent is recycled. There is a huge need to utilise waste.
In 2016 the Kokrobite Chiltern Centre built a school class room from donated plastic bottles stacked in laterite (red sand). Their latest project is the Community Literacy Centre made from 25,500 plastic bottles. The bottles have all been donated and packed with sand/construction waste by the community, bound using nylon and rope and then covered with a mix of cement and clay. It houses a library, meeting room, store room, kitchen and toilets.
Martial said: “We are in an earthquake zone but with the bottles the buildings do not collapse. They are bound together so they may move but we can push them back into place. It’s also fire resistant. Andreas taught me how to build with the bottles and I have taught our community how to build with them. I now also travel to other towns to teach the technique. Many like the idea but just don’t know how.”
Meanwhile bottles are also filled using the discarded plastic water sachets found in the area. With unsafe drinking water most people get through between 10 and 15 water sachets each day. They are cheaper than bottles but the sachets are simply thrown to the ground. Bottles filled with the old sachets are being used to build water tanks and toilet blocks in the area.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE…
Meanwhile Canadian, Robert Bezeau, has been using plastic bottles in a slightly different and more ambitious way. Bezeau is the man behind Plastic Bottle Village on Isla Colon, the main island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago – Panama’s prime holiday destination.
He wants to create a complete village with properties made entirely from plastic bottles. He basically locks empty plastic bottles into a wire mesh cage. The bottles are not exposed to sunlight and are then trapped in between two one inch thick coatings of concrete either side. There are air vents and as the walls are equipped with natural gravity ventilation, fresh air circulates between the panels to avoid any build up of mould, mildew or fumes.
Within Plastic Bottle Village there are 46 lots available for sale in total, on a 33 hectare property on the island. Prices to buy start at US$19,000 for an 800sq.m lot. You go and build your home or they build it for you. A 100sq.m house will use around 16,000 bottles.
He moved to the island in Panama in 2009. Tourism is the backbone of the economy of Bocas but with that comes of glut of plastic left behind by around 100,000 annual visitors. In 1991 volunteers who came to help after an earthquake stayed and helped pick up plastic bottles. In 18 months they had collected over one million bottles.
Robert Bezeau said: “We eliminate the bottle by using the bottle. Inside the bottle is air so the cases are very light and act as insulation.
“We will be living inside what we have consumed and thrown away and will re-construct those materials into modern, stylish and quality built residences. The homes are also earthquake resistant and very cool in temperature so there is no need for air conditioning.
His showcase is a four storey castle made from 40,000 plastic bottles. It took two years to build and is a way to demonstrate, not only how to use the plastic bottles for building, but to highlight the invasion of single use plastic bottles.
“We are changing the world, without changing the earth. One home at a time.” Robert added.