What Are Ecobricks? Turning Plastic Waste Into Bricks

Manufacturing ecobricks maintains a basic principle: get all the plastic you can't reuse or recycle locally and put it together with the maximum packing power into PET bottles. Single-use plastics are perfect examples. The stuffed full rigid tubes of plastic become building blocks used for different purposes, including sculpture and construction work. 

Ecobricks first became a thing in the Philippines as an answer to housing shortages and plastic pollution. It was a local solution to reduce the levels of plastic in the community and build a shelter.

This article explores the resources and steps required to create an ecobrick. It also explores the benefits and disadvantages of ecobricks to the environment. 

Related: Natural Building - Eco-Friendly Materials & Technique

What are bottle bricks? 

Boy in the Philippines with bottle bricks
Photo taken by Josephine Chan and Ian Christie. (CC BY 4.0)

Bottle bricks, or eco-bricks, are plastic bottles filled with clean plastic waste. Stuffing the plastic bottle with dry plastic waste creates something akin to the conventional bricks we use in construction. 

Ecobricks are a form of reusable building blocks. Researchers started considering the possibility of plastic bottle bricks when they noticed what developing countries were doing with the enormous plastic waste dumped in developed countries. There are three ways to deal with waste from the production and usage of plastic; disposal at landfill, incineration, and recycling. 

Disposal and incineration of plastic waste only harm the environment. Similarly, many traditional construction techniques cause significant environmental harm. It takes over a hundred years for plastics to break down. Plastics dumped in landfills go through four processes of degradation. They are;

  • Photodegradation
  • Thermo Oxidative degradation
  • Hydrolytic degradation
  • Biodegradation

Photodegradation occurs because of the absorption of ultraviolet light, infrared radiation, and visible light. Thermo Oxidative degradation occurs at high heat temperature levels. The heat forces the oxidizing agents to fuse and react to the plastic material.

Another degradation process known as hydrolytic degradation happens because of the polymer's reaction to water molecules. Polymer bonds react to water, breaking into smaller pieces called microplastics. Last, biodegradation by microorganisms occurs here. Microorganisms turn organic materials into nutrients.

All these forms of degradation above only release more plastic into the environment over the years. If we choose to burn plastic waste, we contribute to the increased amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It affects the air quality, leading to poor respiratory health. Recycling plastic waste is the next best way to get rid of it. 

However, most third-world countries need adequate recycling facilities to handle the enormous waste in their environment. Guatemala was one of the first countries to use ecobricks when an NGO put the trash to good use to make 37,000 of them and build a school.

Related: Plastic Waste Bottles - Environmental Impact

How do you turn a plastic bottle into a reusable building block?

The process of creating an ecobrick building block is relatively easy. According to the Global Ecobrick Alliance, here are the steps required to make ecobricks:

1. Save, separate, and clean plastic bottles 

The first step is to collect waste plastic bottles, clean them and leave them to dry. After sorting PET bottles, sort other forms of waste plastic items. You can have a bin that holds plastics that are eco-brickable. A designated bin in your home can help you track how much plastic your household uses.  

Cleaning selected plastic items is highly important. Stuffing dirty plastics in bottle bricks leads to microbiological growth inside the bottles. Also, toxic gases like methane will form in the bottles. These growths and gasses cause the bottles to become bloated and the caps to pop off. 

Wash all dirt and food stains off the plastics. Then dry them properly before storing them. Using wet plastic in ecobricks can also lead to microbiological growth. You can dry them by hanging them on cloth lines or using a laundry dryer.

2. Choose a specific bottle size

It is important to use the same sizes of bottles to create bottle bricks. There are three things to consider when selecting the bottles for ecobricks. First is the availability of the bottle sizes. Choose sizes that are easily accessible. 

Next is the volume of the bottle. It is advisable to start with small-sized bottles that are under 600 ml. Smaller bottles are compact and easier to fill up. Large 1500 ml bottles are better suited for people with years of experience in the eco-bricking community.

Last, you must consider the construction project you want to embark on. For indoor projects like furniture, you need all bottles to be the same size and volume. Outdoor projects don’t require the same size but require equal bottle volume.

3. Use packing sticks to pack 

To fill up the bottles, you’ll need a packing stick to push in all the plastics and compact them. The best sticks to use are bamboo and wooden sticks. They should be longer than the bottle’s length because it gives you enough range to squeeze waste into the bottle. 

The stick's width should be about 6mm, strong enough not to break and thin enough to go into the bottle opening easily. Also, it should have a rounded tip instead of a sharp tip. Sharp tips will damage the bottles, making them unsuitable for ecobricks.

4. Avoid metal, glass, and biodegradable objects  

The only material advisable to insert into your ecobricks is plastic. So, avoid putting metal and glass objects in your ecobricks because their sharp edges can damage the bottles. 

Also, avoid adding biodegradable objects like paper, cardboard, and food waste. Biodegradable items don’t harm the environment when disposed of properly; therefore, only secure plastic waste to ensure the longevity of your bricks.

5. Start packing selected bottles with bottom colors 

Stacking ecobricks up will create patterns and designs. To further enhance the designs and patterns created, use a colorful plastic material for the base of your bottle. Select soft plastic materials with solid colors and fit them snuggly at the bottom of the bottle. Fill up about 2cm of the bottle with this color before switching it. Ensure to reach the uneven parts of the bottle. 

Doing this gives you more versatility to create thematic walls and furniture with ecobricks.

6. Ensure to pack the bottles tightly and mix various plastics 

The next step after filling up is cutting the other plastic materials. Cutting them into small pieces allows for density. Put the plastic in the bottle until it is half full, and use your packing stick to push it down to compress it tightly. You can add more plastics and compress them until the bottle is full. 

To increase its density, alternate between soft and hard plastic. Don’t forget to keep weighing the bottle to avoid going past your required weight (although once you get the hang of it, this becomes less necessary). 

Also, do not push the packing stick too hard against the bottle. A broken bottle cannot become an ecobrick. Instead, you turn it into packing plastic to be compressed into another bottle.

7. Weigh your ecobricks to ensure it has enough weight to hold earthen walls

Ensure that your ecobricks are strong before you store them for later use. According to the Global Ecobricks Alliance, the density of a brick should be higher than 0.33 g/ml. Going by this specification, a 600 ml bottle must be more than 200g, and a 1500 ml bottle must weigh more than 500g for use in construction projects or anything load-bearing. 

An eco-bricked plastic that weighs less than 0.33 g/ml is squishy. The plastic breaks easily under heavy force. It is not suitable for earth buildings.

8. Pack and label your ecobricks 

Once you are sure your bottle is dense to specification, cover it tightly. However, do not fill up your bottles to the point they overflow. The cap of the bottle is the weakest part of an ecobrick. It can break easily when faced with intense pressure. So, leave 2 cm of space to give room to the cap and the plastic in the bottle. 

The next thing to do is to record and label the ecobricks. With a spreadsheet, create sections for the ecobricker’s name, final weight, date and year, and intended project the ecobricks are for. To be extremely thorough, you can use serial numbers to keep track of the ecobricks. Keeping a record makes it easy to keep track of the amount of plastic you secure from the environment.

9. Record your brick weight on the bottle

After recording the details in your logbook, you should also record the details of the ecobricks on the bottle brick. Inscribing the brick’s weight, date, and serial number shows it is registered. However, the materials you used to inscribe on the bottles are important. 

Avoid using permanent markers to write on the plastics because it doesn’t last long. Also, the materials used to make the markers are nonrecyclable, making them dangerous for ecobricks. Don’t use paper labels or stickers, either. 

Instead, use oil paint and nail polish. Many ecobrickers prefer oil paint because it is easier to label with contrasting colors. However, you can use nail paint if you don’t have access to oil paint.

10. Store ecobricks under shade before usage 

Under no circumstance should you store your ecobricks under the sun. Wrap the bricks with a cloth to prevent dust from accumulating on them. For easy organization, stack the bricks horizontally. Don’t place them directly on the floor. Store the bricks on a raised platform to prevent interactions with other elements.

Benefits of using plastic waste in construction projects

While ecobricks are not entirely sustainable in the long-term perspective, it benefits the environment to some extent. Ecobricks reduce plastic pollution in the local environment. 

How does it do that? 

The inception of the global ecobrick movement sought to reduce the amount of plastic in the environment. As the global population increases, the demand for plastic products increases. Plastic production is at an all-time high, especially in well-developed countries. In 2021, plastic production from all around the world was 390.7 million tons.

With the high demand for plastic products, you can imagine how enormous the resulting waste is. 

Plastic pollution statistics show the world produces about 400 million tons of plastic waste annually. Most of this waste disposal occurs in landfills or directly in the environment. 

Most of our consumed plastic products eventually enter various marine habitats. In fact, most of the pollution in the marine environment is plastics, with only a small percentage of the waste getting recycled. Most developed countries produce more waste than their industrial recycling facilities handle, so they send it to other, often developing, countries as a part of the global waste trade

These countries can lack proper industrial recycling facilities, so they withstand plastic pollution. They recycle plastics to improve their living conditions, both the environment and their finances. Ecobricks help keep plastic out of the environment, saving it from the harsh consequences of plastic degradation.

Championing the ecobrick cause

Some nongovernmental organizations are championing ecobrick initiatives in developed countries. They encourage people to recycle their plastic waste by giving a little incentive, promoting a circular economy. Also, it builds more ecological consciousness and encourages people to be more aware of their plastic consumption rates. Forming a supply chain within local communities can boost the economy of third-world countries. 

An example of an NGO pushing the ecobrick initiative is the Global Ecobrick Alliance, which is at the forefront of the eco-bricks movement. The Global Ecobrick Alliance Earth Enterprise supports the movement of eco-bricks at a global and local level through the maintenance and development of resources. 

Another benefit of ecobricks is the ease of creating them. Ecobricks are so easy to make. They do not require as much human resources and energy as concrete bricks. Also, they are relatively inexpensive to produce. 

Disadvantages of using eco-bricks 

However, ecobricks might need to be more sustainable long-term and only postpone the inevitable plastic pollution. It is not in tune with green spaces that enrich the environment and human health. 

Manufacturers produce plastics with harmful chemicals. Plastic degradation will occur over time because of exposure to sunlight and other elements. This exposure will cause the chemicals in these synthetic polymers to leak into the environment. 

Degrading synthetic polymers disrupt the ecosystem, putting the lives of humans and other biodiversity at risk. In the next hundred years, future generations will face the longer-term problems of today’s plastic pollution. By then, most of the plastics would have broken down into microplastics. 

Also, it doesn’t fully change the ecological consciousness of people. Some people might view the concept of ecobricks as increasing their plastic consumption. Ecobricks aren’t a perfect solution to plastic pollution. Ecobricks delay the inevitable for about 100 more years. We should settle for a more harmless but effective recycling method for used plastic. Recycling shouldn’t delay inevitable harm; it should prevent harm from occurring. 

And, of course, the best thing we can do regarding plastic pollution is to reduce or remove the use of this fossil fuel product in the first place. Check out our articles on zero-waste for loads of options to minimize waste at home, school, and office. 

Conclusion 

Ecobricks provide a short-term solution to plastic pollution in several areas. It keeps plastic from degrading in the environment for many years. However, we should recycle plastic to be in greener harmony with the earth’s cycles. Ecobricks only postpone the inevitable harm of plastic pollution for future generations. 

Still, it is an excellent way of managing waste. It teaches several people to segregate and pack plastics. Also, It creates awareness about the problems associated with plastic pollution. However, the best solution to plastic pollution is to reduce the demand for the production of plastic items. If not, we'd just be creating more waste for the future generation to handle.

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