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Ecobricks: An Answer to Plastic Waste? 

By Camille LeFevreRise Writer
Apr 27, 2019

Once seen, who can forget this dialogue from the 1967 film The Graduate?

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Yes. We’re thinking about it: About how that great future of a marvelous material’s convenience and indestructibility has resulted in miles of plastic littering the oceans (some of it from the 1960s), harming wildlife, and overflowing in landfills. We all use it. We’re all dependent on it. Plastic makes modern life possible.

plastic ocean pollution
‘Plastic Ocean’ by Tan Zi Xi

Yet, less than a fifth of all plastic gets recycled globally; less than 10 percent in the U.S. A petroleum-based product that’s non-biodegradable, meaning the earth can’t reabsorb it, plastic is a global garbage problem that’s overwhelming the planet. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, an alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses, and policymakers working toward a plastic-free future, “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight.” 

Around the world, people are not only thinking about plastic but doing something about it. Homeowners are actively reducing their plastic use. California is the first state to ban single-use plastic bags: Hawaii, New York, and Washington, D.C. have followed. People are also getting creative. One of the simplest ways of repurposing plastic is using it as building blocks for construction. Take a clean, dry, empty plastic bottle; fill it full of clean, dry plastic (like plastic bags); use a stick to compact the plastic and rotate the bottle to fill up any voids until the container is completely stuffed and you’ve got an ecobrick.

Ecobrick plastic bottle
Photo Credit: www.Ecobrick.it

Used around the world to build planters, furniture, walls, buildings, and even boats, ecobricks “are designed to leverage the longevity and durability of plastic to create an indefinitely reusable, cradle to cradle, building block,” according to the Ecobricks website. “No special skills, machinery, funding, NGOs, or politicians are needed,” Ecobricks.org explained in a YouTube video

Making ecobricks from household plastic is a great do-it-yourself project for families. Using ecobricks made a home, families can create such simple structures as a frame for a sandbox, raised planting bed for a garden, or even an outdoor bench.

Brick by Brick: A History

Innovative citizens worldwide have been making and using ecobricks as building materials since plastic bottles were introduced. Several eco-pioneers helped develop the practice, reportedly after German architect, Andreas Froese of ECO-TEC began creating structures using sand-filled PET bottles. Alvaro Molina, the founder of the Ometepe Bilingual School, began packing plastic into bottles on the island of Ometepe in 2003 to maintain the island’s delicate eco-systems and construct school classrooms by re-purposing plastic trash. Greyton, a town in the Western Cape, is often recognized as the first town to use ecobricks in South Africa for community gardens and local schools.

ecobricks garden
Photo Credit: EarthSavvy

In 2010, Ecobricks.org founder Russell Maier and collaborator Irene Bakisandeveloped a curriculum guide of simplified and recommended practices, called the Vision Ecobrick Construction Guide, to help local schools integrate ecobricks into their curriculum. The organization now offers training and inspiration through its Facebook page, Ecobricks: Plastic Solved.

In 2014, while in Guatemala, environmental activist Susana Heisse encouraged ecobricking as a building technique and solving excess plastic challenges faced in Lake Atitlan communities. Since then, the open-source development of ecobrick technology and awareness has spread throughout the world, with ecobricks being used as sustainable, alternative building materials in the Philippines, Indonesia, South Africa, Zambia, Thailand, Peru, Mexico, and the United States.

Nonprofit organizations have sprung up to disperse education, ideas, and building tips using ecobricks. Programs sponsored by Ecobrick Exchange in Cape Town use ecobricks made from plastic waste compressed into PET bottles—“a highly insulating building material that is water, fire, and even bullet-proof”—to help communities create play structures, raised garden beds, park benches, boundary and retaining walls, and temporary exhibition structures. The goal is to “empower individuals to address the shortage of quality education facilities, implement sustainable waste management systems, and raise environmental awareness.”

Upcycle Santa Fe in New Mexico encourages residents to make ecobricks with their own trash and drop them off for use in the organization’s construction projects. Hug It Forward in Latin America “facilitates education and awareness around improved trash management methods via the construction of bottle classrooms. Bottle classrooms are constructed using ecobricks, which are plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash. During the project process, entire communities come together to build a more environmentally responsible educational space for their future.”

In Washington, D.C., Community Forklift, a nonprofit reuse center for home-improvement supplies, held a Changemaker Challenge and ecobrick building workshop. One of the staff built four ecobrick park benches in Maryland, and the Changemaker Challenge winner created a bus stop bench. The Peace on Earthbench Movement in the Bay Area of California works with communities worldwide to create seating areas from ecobricks for schools, parks, and museums.

Building with Ecobricks 

So how do you actually build with them? According to this YouTube video, horizontal and vertical methods for building with circular, bottle-formed ecobricks. The horizontal method is best for benches, plant boxes, and other low-rise structures. For the vertical method, the bottles are set between a structure of wood or bamboo and chicken wire on top of a platform for a wall or fence. Then, adobe or cement and water are mixed and slathered over the chicken wire to create the surface, covering up the bottles. The surface can then be painted.

The Circle Hostel chain in the Philippines has used ecobricks to build bathroom walls and shower stalls. “Lots of people don’t believe that it’s possible to make bottles into construction material, so we’re using the hostels so that people can see that it works,” representatives told The Observers. “The method is cheaper and safer than normal building materials. It’s pretty strong. Hollow blocks or bricks fall in an earthquake. Bottle bricks will shake but won’t fall—they’re actually safer. The bottles act as filler.”

Upcycle Santa Fe often works with the Sante Fe High School. A project with the school’s Innovative Academy included visiting a landfill for education and supplies, making the ecobricks, and utilizing ecobricks and silicone adhesive to make modular furniture and sculpture. Students also learned how to build simple wood frames, fill them with ecobricks, and bond them together using various mixes of cob (clay, sand, and straw) and cement.

In some projects, the bottles' bottoms are left exposed to create textural patterns in the walls. Or the bottoms might be painted bright colors to resemble flowers. Bottles may be stuffed with plastic in specific colors or with the same color always on top to create uniform bricks that create colorways when assembled into furniture. The Earthbench group has used ecobricks to create such structures as doghouses, walls, benches, and birdhouses throughout California.

Ecobrick: Advantages and Disadvantages

Ecobricks have many advantages over conventional construction materials. They’re zero cost, absorb abrupt shock loads, are reusable, easy to work with, lightweight, and repurpose the plastic that’s rapidly threatening to take over our ecosystems.

There are also downsides. Because ecobricks are plastic, like the plastic they’re comprised of, they don’t decompose. If they melt, they release gases that are harmful to human health and the environment. Plastic is made from oil, a fossil fuel.

Bottom Line

Ecobrick’s use is seemingly relegated to areas of the world in which plastic accumulates and is most visible: areas near the ocean, near open landfills, and in countries where funding may not be available for trash pickup and removal. In other words, ecobricks find their best use in poor, less developed, or third-world countries.

And yet, the production and consumption of plastic are a first-world problem in the truest sense. Only by reducing our plastic production and use and innovating ways to recycle plastic for new uses in our homes can we reduce the amount of plastic in the natural world and renew our planet for generations to come.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-08T01:30:55+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.