How (and why) to make an ecobrick

How to make an ecobrick - testing density!

Seriously? They call it an ‘eco’ brick?

I will admit it – when I first heard of the ‘ecobrick’, I was not impressed. How can plastic stuffed with more plastic ever classify as ‘eco’? The term ‘ecobrick’ for me brings to mind thoughts of cob houses, or baked clay, not coke bottles stuffed with cellophane. The idea at first did not strike me as a good one. If these were used to make houses, wouldn’t it just mean that I was letting someone else live with the environmental and health consequences of toxic volatile compounds being emitted by my plastic waste? I certainly would not wish that on anyone.

So I continued to malign the ecobrick, thinking that it really was a much less ideal solution than, say, recycling, or just using less plastic. And then I moved to a farm in the bush with no waste removal and no formal recycling plan. In fact, whatever I didn’t make a plan to recycle myself was burnt in a pit. Whatever my misgivings about ecobricks, they couldn’t be worse than the smell of burning plastic. And a nearby primary school was collecting them. I put aside my reservations, and, armed with very little information on the topic, I set out to make my bricks.

Let me tell you about my change of heart

I am happy to report that I am now working on my third ecobrick. And I have to say, to those behind the idea of the ecobrick – I am sorry, I was wrong. After making a few mistakes, I have (I think) now learned a thing or two about how to make ecobricks, and that is what I will share with you here.

What can you put in an ecobrick?

An ecobrick can be packed with any kind of plastic or even polystyrene – shopping packets, food wrapping, cling wrap, cellophane. Ecobricks are not just for non-recyclable plastic or soft plastic – any plastic you can make fit in, you can use.

What can’t you put in an ecobrick?

Unfortunately, you can’t put wet or dirty plastic in an ecobrick. It is not the solution to easily getting rid of meat wrapping without washing it. Having organic matter in an ecobrick causes a build-up of bacteria and methane, and this can compromise the brick, and may even cause it to explode. Not such a good idea. All plastic going into an ecobrick must be washed and dried.

What bottle can you use for building an ecobrick?

It depends what you are using the ecobrick for! If you are making bricks for someone else, you need to use the size that they are looking for. If you are planning to build a structure yourself, you can decided what size you need. An ecobrick can be made of any PET bottle, even 500ml. I have been using 2L bottles because that is what is required for the projects to which I am contributing.

How do you build an ecobrick?

To make an ecobrick, you will need the following equipment:

  1. A clean and dry PET bottle of chosen size
  2. A stick or wooden spoon with a handle that fits through the lid of your bottle (2/3 opening size is good, usually +_ 6mm)
  3. A stack of clean and dry plastic
  4. A pair of scissors (optional)

Directions

You can either stock up plastic and then have an ecobrick making session and finish it in one shot, or you can add plastic as you go. It is probably more sensible to use the former approach, but I feel it saves time to do it as I go!

Make sure you press down each piece of plastic firmly, especially in the beginning to make sure that the bottom is filled nicely. If you wait until the end and try to compact it, you won’t be able to get the bottom filled.

Hard plastic or polystyrene will need to be cut up and spaced between soft plastic so that it can still be compacted. Don’t try to put all the pieces of a polystyrene sheet in at once – you won’t be able to push it all down well.

Keep pushing down and adding plastic until you reach the desired weight, then put the lid on. Make sure the plastic isn’t pushing up against the lid.How (and why) to make an ecobrick 1

How full does an ecobrick need to be?

The appropriate density for an ecobrick to function as a building material is 0.33g/dl3, or 0.33g per ml of volume in the bottle you are using. A 2l cooldrink bottle therefore needs to be a minimum weight of 660g (2000×0.33). That is a lot of plastic to stuff into a bottle!

Remind me why I am doing this again?

God doesn’t waste anything, and neither should we! When it comes to reduce, reuse, recycle, there is a reason why we say it in that order. Reducing obviously takes first place – less demand for plastic means less is made and there is less to pollute the environment. Reusing still trumps recycling – recycling is a process that is better than dumping or burning, but it still uses energy and results in waste products and harmful chemicals entering the environment.

Reduce, reduce, reduce, reuse, reuse, maybe recycle

Making ecobricks is classified as reusing, not recycling. In actual fact it is a better idea to put your recyclable plastics into an ecobrick than to actually recycle them! It turns out, the harmful chemicals from plastics only leach out as the plastic biodegrades. For plastics to degrade, they need water and sun and a large surface area. Imprisoning them in a stronger plastic reduces their access to sun, and prevents water from getting to them. It also reduces their surface area significantly. Because of this, degradation then doesn’t happen.

The ecobrick effectively utilizes the properties of plastics against them, making something potentially negative into something more positive. The other function of ecobricks is to increase awareness. Once you are expending energy washing and drying plastic, and using elbow grease to stuff more and more bits into a bottle, you will start to wonder why you had to use so much plastic in the first place.

The ecobrick would like to make itself redundant. It wants you to think more about reducing. Maybe you can buy meat from a local farmer or REKO co-op in your own container. You could think about taking a cloth bag for your weighed vegetables at the supermarket. You could look into getting a reusable coffee cup, a reusable straw, a glass water bottle.

How (and why) to make an ecobrick 2The possibilities are endless. And it started with a brick.

Read more on the ecobrick website, register your bricks and more! Contact a local school or recycling project to see if they collect ecobricks, or drop them off at Pick n Pay stores across South Africa.

What are your thoughts on ecobricks? Let me know!

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