Convenience turned out to be our biggest enemy as we put shrink-wrap on cucumbers, plastic forks in plastic wrappers and got our caffeine fixes from disposable pods. We ignored our plastic addiction and the nightmare in our landfills and oceans, possibly till China started talking dirty about waste imports in 2017. By the next year, Beijing implemented a ban on importing the world’s waste. Up until then, according to United Nations trade statistics data, China imported around 56% of the United States’ rubbish alone – including the single-use plastics we dump without a second thought.
The trade shake-up brought home a dreadful reality for people diligently sorting their waste into recyclables. Plastics they thought were destined for sustainable recycling were mostly being shipped at a high carbon footprint in transportation kilometres to faraway destinations. In China and in developing countries in South East Asia, plastics are mostly dumped or burnt.
The WWF’s (World Wild Fund for Nature) Plastic File of 2018 put global production of plastics at over 300 million metric tonnes a year and recycling of plastics in South Africa at a dismal 16%, even as each South African uses between 30kg and 50kg of plastic a year. “We have produced more plastics in the first 18 years of the 21st century than we did in the whole of the 20th century,” the report states.
Plastics are made from non-renewable fossil fuels such as oil and coal and have a carbon load of about 6kg of C0² per 1kg of plastic produced.
Responses to the growing crisis have ranged from feeble retweeting and giving hearts to social media posts of plastic islands in ocean gyres and marine birds with bellies full of detritus, to buying alternatives like beeswax food wraps and paper stalk earbuds or choosing loose tea leaves over teabags and ditching straws. Mostly though, the average person is still left with a sense of helplessness at not being able to help change one of the biggest environmental threats of our time.
It’s here that the ecobricks initiative has emerged as an “imperfectly perfect” response for individuals to do something positive about plastic waste.
An ecobrick is a two-litre cooldrink bottle jammed solid with all kinds of cleaned non-recyclable, non-biodegradable household plastics from chip packets and cling film to disposable pens, polystyrene packaging and plastic veggie trays.
Once full, they can be dropped off at collection points and the bricks can be used as fillers in small building projects. They work well in partition walls, sheds and garages, and for functional art projects, furniture and planters.
The ecobrick initiative is a global movement from Guatemala where it’s believed to have got its start years ago. From there it spread to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Zambia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the past two years, it’s been gaining traction in South Africa with schools, faith-based organisations and NGOs driving it. The movement is a loose organisation that’s largely about sharing information on green building techniques and inspiration on uses for ecobricks.
Candice Mostert became an avid “bricker” about six years ago when she realised how much waste she was generating and throwing out. The former journalist based in Fish Hoek was so determined to get the message out she started Waste-ED, an initiative to inform people about ecobricks and to implement them. Today, she works as a waste management and recycling consultant and also helps NGOs with ecobrick builds and other environmental interventions.
“You can fit up to two black bags of non-recyclables into one two-litre bottle. Up until I started ecobricking, my thoughts about my waste literally didn’t go past the bin. Waste-ED has been my way to try to better understand the challenges we are facing and to implement solutions locally that can transform our future,” she says.
Mostert and the communities she works in across the Western Cape have made benches in playgrounds, toilet blocks and partition walls in schools. Their ecobricks builds are set in cob, a natural clay made from straw and sand. Clay is fire retardant and can contain possible chemical leaching from the bottles. It also protects the ecobricks, so that should a structure eventually be dismantled or break, the ecobricks can be recovered and reused instead of disintegrating and ending up as rubble or microplastics. Last year, they had 37 participating schools and managed to divert 20 tonnes of plastic away from landfills.
Sir Lowry’s Pass Primary School has been the recipient of two ecobrick benches.
“The children have been so excited, and the best bit is that we got all the children involved. The children now put all their chip packets and sweet wrappers into the ecobricks they make, so the school is cleaner,” says deputy principal Delphine May. “We didn’t have a single bench in the school grounds before these ecobrick benches, so the children are very happy.”
There are about 1 300 children at the school, many of whom May says come from the nearby shack settlements of Sun City, Rasta Camp and Nomzamo. As they continue ecobricking, the learners will go on to build shelves and stools for the school.
“Hopefully the children show their parents what they can do with the ecobricks in their homes because some of them come from very poor communities,” she says.
Not the end goal
Peter McIntosh of the Natural Building Collective says ecobricks have a role in the war against plastic waste, but they also have inherent limitations and obvious downstream environmental failings. He believes that knowing the fuller picture should spur people on to keep thinking about better solutions for plastic waste and to advocate to short-circuit the life of single-use plastic production.
“The ecobrick story is an incomplete one. It’s good that making ecobricks gives people a sense of being able to do something about the plastic problem. But there are several factors that need to be considered and different contexts and regulatory frameworks for different countries that can’t be overlooked,” says McIntosh.
To begin with, he says, two-litre cooldrink bottles are among the easiest items to be picked out in a landfill for conventional recycling. Removing them for ecobricks means that they are not entering a managed recycling stream in South Africa. He also says ecobricks are inherently difficult to build with because of their shape. Ecobricks as building methods have also not been tested for fire resistance or toxicity. When used poorly and in conjunction with other environmentally unfriendly products, they simply create a future environmental mess for others to clean up. Supply and demand of ecobricks can also be out of sync, which means ecobricks may sit in a pile unused somewhere while elsewhere builders run out of ecobricks to complete a project.
McIntosh has lived off the grid for 20 years in Ladismith in the Klein Karoo and teaches alternative natural building. He built the government sponsored Delft Early Childhood Development Centre in the Western Cape from reclaimed materials including construction materials, tyres, ecobricks and cob. It stands as a showcase of the possibilities of building with waste.
But he hasn’t written off ecobricks and continues to incorporate them in his builds. He is working with universities to test ecobricks, so their efficiency and safety can be optimised.
“Context matters greatly; in a place like Guatemala, waste disposal means walking to a ravine and throwing your waste into it, so ecobricking there makes absolute sense. In South Africa, there is managed plastic recycling, so that should be better supported, and there are regulations that need to be adhered to in South Africa. It raises the question of whether all the effort people take to make ecobricks could not be better channelled into advocacy and awareness initiatives to shame and force big companies to stop making single-use plastics in the first place,” he says.
Building with ecobricks
For Alison Griffiths of ADVA Youth Skills Development in Johannesburg, ecobricking and ecobrick building has ticked boxes she didn’t expect.
“Ecobricks are a cheap way to get every child involved in making the bricks and for them to be hands on in building benches or veggie patch walls in their communities,” says Griffiths, who’s also a medical doctor and scout master.
Griffiths says their builds still rely on cement as a core material. Cement is environmentally unfriendly because of the pollution created during production, its impact on the environment during builds and how it’s disposed of.
“We know cement is not the best choice, and even ecobricking is not the final solution for plastic, but we could build with cement with these ecobricks or wait around for clay and do nothing.”
She uses ecobricks made from bottles of all sizes, not just 2l cooldrink bottles, by finding creative uses for them.
“I take them all because I’ve seen how making ecobricks gives ordinary people a sense of being able to do something. We’ve been able to build all sorts of things in communities where they have nothing, like stools in schools where there isn’t a chair for a child to sit on,” says Griffiths. She adds that conventional recycling is not feasible for many people who live in townships and who would have to rely on public transport if they were to move their recyclables to facilities far from their homes.
On a mild Saturday morning in Coronationville, on the western edge of Joburg, Griffiths has gathered about 15 local children who are part of the scout group she formed. They’re about to tackle an outdoor bench project for a local community centre called TAG (Together Action Group).
“The staff at this centre didn’t have a place to have meetings and asked ADVA for an ecobrick bench under the tree,” says Griffiths, as the children line up four layers of ecobricks held together with cement and a bit of chicken wire.
Two and a half hours and R500 worth of cement and sand later, they have a U-shaped bench ready for curing. The children ask to scratch their names into the side of the bench, thrilled that teamwork and effort have resulted in a functional piece of furniture.
Sanele Nirenda, 12, is one of ADVA’s scouts and comes to the TAG community centre regularly. She says: “Today I learned that you can build a bench from plastic by jamming what you can’t recycle into a plastic bottle. It’s actually fun. I really enjoyed building this bench.” This is the point for Griffiths.
“The boys and girls who are involved in the project will go home and tell their parents that they built something by themselves. The 14 benches we’ve built around the city to date means two tonnes of plastic have been turned into something useful.” That’s two tonnes of plastic that have not ended up in our rivers and oceans.