I’m standing on a plastic bottle, and, for once, I’m not trying to crush it for disposal so that it won’t fill up the bin–or even the recycling box. What I’m doing is testing it for weight-bearing density.
My bottle, which used to contain four pints of milk, is jam-packed with thin pieces of cut-up plastic, such as wrappers, carrier bags, the outer layers of couriered online-order packages… and a thousand other things for which plastic is essential…
But, such plastic in the wrong place is, as we’re all realising, deadly.
Many, larger-scale plastics are recyclable and so can be put into local centres. This milk bottle is, too. But this blog is not about the bottle, it’s about the bottle as container for the compressed contents – three weeks’ worth of non-recyclable plastic wrappings.
Most of our packaging and food wrapping materials – such as those used for toffee and chocolate – are not recyclable. Singly, each of these feels small – almost not worth worrying about. But start to collect them to fill a plastic bottle and you’ll be surprised how quickly they accumulate.
Sadly, being light, they are most likely to find themselves loose in the landscape, and then the oceans, where, as we now know, they become part of the marine life food chain and eventually enter our children’s brains… Soon, all our brains, and others part of our bodies, will be directly polluted by micro-plastic. No-one knows what the long term effects will be; but we know they will be harmful… possible even fatal to our species. You can’t take an antibiotic for plastic poisoning.
Plastic is a new material in the history of life on Earth. Our slowly evolved natural defences are good at dealing with molecular structures that have been around a long time. Plastic hasn’t… it’s a complex set of molecules derived from oil and it’s new to our biological defences.
The bottle I’m standing on is an ‘EcoBrick’, a term invented by the South American creator of the device – Susanna Heisse. Horrified at the level of plastic waste around her home near Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. She came up with the idea of using plastic bottles stuffed with non-recyclable other plastic as a building material.
The EcoBricks have to be clean and filled with clean, non-organic material. Once sealed, organic waste would generate methane gas, which could explode the ‘brick’. In addition, EcoBricks need to be stuffed so that an adult could stand on them without deformation to the repurposed bottle, as in my picture.
It’s important to use some brightly coloured plastic at the bottom of the stuffed bottle, because that lets the base of the brick be identified if one construction project comes to an end and, say, a wall has to be demolished and reused.
Once these conditions are met the bricks are used either horizontally as true brick substitutes, or vertically for cavity insulation – which they are very suited to. But this is a technology in its infancy…
Initially, Susanna Heisse built a simple wall, layering the stuffed bottles horizontally, with mud-based mortar on top of each layer. The local community picked up the idea and many similarly poor regions of the world began to investigate the potential for using EcoBricks as building materials.
But what about families in western suburbia? Are we really likely to have local projects to which we can contribute our efforts?
There are several dimensions to the problem of plastic disposal. The fundamental one is that our societies have fostered an attitude of ‘someone else can deal with this problem better than I can’. That, alone, produces an approach where its someone else’s problem. We could argue that in a society that was functioning for the good of all we could expect this, but the big drawback is it takes us – our shared consciousness – away from the problem – from the cutting edge of why our world is filling up with waste plastic…
Equally significantly, our trust that the ‘commercial’ disposal of our plastic waste will be carried out with care for the environment can be misplaced. As the headlines have shown us, small bits of ‘rubbish’ become part of larger batches commercially sold on. Many of them become part of a huge load dropped onto the open pit of a cargo ship; and then…
Do these end up somewhere that is sensitive to the wishes of those of us who recycled them at the local unit? How many of us would bet on this? Very few, I suspect. We are content with the ‘should have been’ situation that removes us from the problem; someone’s else’s problem.
Only now it doesn’t. Now, the plastic is coming back into the food chain and it is the problem of our developing children…
Sadly, I have to report that I can find nowhere local to take my EcoBricks… I will continue looking, but this has prompted other, and deeper, deliberations.
I may simply have not looked hard enough, but I think we may be missing the point. EcoBricks were developed in a poor part of South America. The greatest take-up has been in countries like South Africa, where projects in poverty-stricken townships have used musical carnivals to be the centre of clean up and restore projects involving them. The difference between them and, say the UK, is that they need to do it…
Will this stop me making my EcoBricks? No…
Every time I roll that washed chocolate wrapper, or cut-up sections of an old plastic bag to stuff them in the latest bottle, I know I’m doing something important… and that’s not just the act of packing the EcoBrick. The important part is the consciousness of the waste, and the determination that we in the prosperous west should be bringing local technology to all of this. I want to own this problem and fix it!
Remember the ‘Back to the Future’ films?
The bit where the time-travelling car needed refuelling and the professor hunted around the street for some rubbish, tipping it into the hyper-recycling unit, before hitting 88 miles per hour and saving the day…
We don’t have skateboarding Martys… or do we? To our children and their children the tyrants who stood in the way of solving these problems will be held up as examples of a (literally) dying age.
So, I’ll go on making my EcoBricks. It will keep me focussed on the need for a solution. Maybe a future government will create a working ‘corridor’ to the needy parts of the world. More likely, some engineering genius will develop a home machine that ‘bakes’ plastic into a universal raw material.
And who knows, when the PortaFusion Recycler Mark I comes along, I might still be here, with my garage full of plastic bricks, at the front of the queue. I hope to see you there…
Some useful links about EcoBricks. Warning, some may be commercial:
The GEA, Global Ecobrick Alliance – https://www.ecobricks.org/circular/
Earthship Biotecture: https://www.earthshipglobal.com/
UK Facebook Page for EcoBricks UK: https://www.facebook.com/groups/ecobricksUK/
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.