So, this month a video on Ecobricks went viral.  It’s hit almost 200,000 views.  The news site that made the video, unfortunately, made it with all the resources from our site– but didn’t consult us.  Thus, the video contains lots of errors and problems!  This has been a great motivation, to update a crucial page on our site:  Why Ecobrick?

The page puts forth some deep ethical arguments for Ecobricking.  These arguments are drawn from an essay, that I almost forgot about, that was written 5 years ago while I was in the Northern Philippines.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out presciently helpful it is now for our current predicament.  It goes much deeper than our summary page that is now up on the site.

I’ve dusted it off…. and here it is the original essay:

The Ethics of Ecobricking

by Russell Maier / Oct. 2013

We’re investigating the efficacy of Ecobricks as a community solution  to solid waste in the Northern Philippines. Ecobricks are made by  packing solid a PET bottle with one type of non-recyclable  non-biodegradable (i.e. plastic, cellophanes, styrofoam, etc).  An  essential part of our investigation is ethical.  It is crucial to weigh  the long-term consequences of making a building block from potential  toxics.  Short term the benefits have been clearly observed in our  pilot-schools:  encouraging segregation, avoiding short-term  contamination, enabling personal waste responsibility, and empowering  individuals, schools and communities with a low cost construction  alternative.

Yet, what about the long-term?  After all, not thinking about the  destination of our designs is precisely the cause of pollution  today.   The stashed trash after all does not go away.   Are we not passing the  problem to future generations?

We can pose the question using the framework of William McDonough, the theorist behind Cradle-to-Cradle design ethics(*1):

”How do we love all of the children of all species  for all time [with our designs]? You notice that this is not how do we  love our children. This is all of the children of all of the species for  all time.’‘  — William McDonough

Thus we can ask:  Is Ecobricking good for all the children of all the species for all time?  

I have been carefully observing the application of Ecobricks in my  mountain community for two years.  After much reflection, I argue in the  article below that Ecobricks are a indeed a viable solution to be  pursued immediately.  First, the laborious process of Ecobricking  encourages reflection on the very nature of ‘trash’ and one’s personal  waste responsibility.  Ecobricking, as a consciousness raising process,  gets to the root of pollution and becomes a transition from linear to  circular thinking.  Second, Ecobricking allows the long term retention  of control and cycling of materials that in all other eventualities  would become toxic.   Third, Ecobricking is a zero-cost, immediate,  all-generation, solid waste solution for communities with inadequate  recycling.   Ecobricks allow individual and community action without the  need of special skills, equipment, facilities, finances or political  permission, to transform flows of  wastes into into useful, zero-cost  and indefinitely reusable building blocks.  In addition, the tendency of  Ecobricks to be used in constructing communal green spaces enriches our  environment.  There are pitfalls to Ecobricking, but when disseminated  with guidance, these four aspects of Ecobricks, result in a  cradle-to-cradle waste and building solution that moves us away from the  perilous linear flow ‘trash’ to an useful and healthy cycle of  technical nutrients.  In this way, Ecobricks can indeed enrich the lives  of our children and the children of all species for all time.

First, let us review the context of Ecobricks.   I began exploring  packing plastics in my home in a small mountain village in the  Philippine Cordilleras.  In my community there was simply no reasonable  place to put my non-biodegradable waste. The situation in my village is a  revealing example of a situation common, yet often hidden, in countless  places around the world. (*2)

Let us follow a personal example.  I love coffee.  In the nearby town  they grow and roast great coffee.  It is sold in a brown silver-lined  bag to preserve its freshness.  The bag, like countless other consumer  packaging, is made from linear low-density polyethylene which does not  harmonize into the local ecology– when burned it creates toxic dioxins  and when dumped coagulates poisonous PCBs.

Once I am done with my coffee beans, the plastic’s use is over– it has become what we commonly call trash, or here basura.   Before I began ecobricking, my ‘basura’ would go into a segregated bin  in my home. The contents of that bin would then be collected by the  municipality and would go to one of the towns official or unofficial  dump sites.  Most often this is off a cliff, near the river, or in an  isolated rural area.

Through this process, control of the item is inexorably lost.   Through fumes, ashes, and  photo-degradation the coffee bag and its  component chemicals seep into the surrounding web of life.  There, the  dioxins and coagulated PCBs begin their poisonous journey through the  food chain.

The key element in this transition of product to pollution is control.   When I still had control of the coffee wrapper within my home there was  no overt contamination.  Recycling or upcycling is retention of  control.  Yet, when this is not available, there is simply no other  place for it to go.  In a region like mine, countless types of  non-biodegrade wastes (like my plastic coffee bag) are on such a one way  journey.   Even when recycling occurs (such as some PET bottles) the  plastic is simply cycled into a lower non-recyclable grade with a  one-time-use.   The final attempt at retaining control is a dump site or   ‘engineered sanitary land-fill’.  Alas, when we begin to extend the  time frame from 20 years to 100 years, even a dedicated dump site is not  a solution.  Examples of water table contamination in Canada, Germany  and Switzerland testify to this.(*2)  Control literally seeps away.

The journey of my coffee bag is of course that of all the  non-biodegradables in my bin.  The fate of the contents of my bin is  that of everyones’ in my town, of the towns of all the province, of all  the provinces in the Philippines.   Whether it is a decade or a century,  this inexorable flow and the inextricable contamination of local  ecosystems is unquestionably not in the interest of our children, and  the children of all species for all time.

Enter Ecobricks.

First,  the very process of Ecobricking gets to the roots of  pollution.  Pollution is fundamentally caused by short sighted   thinking.  For those who have never made an Ecobrick,  it is a time  consuming, monotonous and laborious process.  It can take hours of  dedicated work and a large sack of plastic to make a single 0.5kg  Ecobrick.  The process is inherently meditative.  It lends itself  towards existential reflection on each piece of “trash” being stashed  and its otherwise linear route:  Where did it come from?  Where is it  going? Why is it here?  Where will it be in 100 years?  Would it be  better to just grow my own coffee?  To honor future generations and  other species, we must begin by thinking of them.  Ecobricks provide an  invaluable spark to such reflection (this very article and your reading  of it is an example of this).   Ecobrciks become a catalyst to  envisioning one’s lifestyle in deeper harmony with the circles of life.

“Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”
“Where did it come from?  What is it?  Where is it Going?”

Secondly, making an Ecobrick makes use of the very problem (the  longevity of the plastic) to seal the potential toxics away.  In the  words of Bill Watson, founder of the principles of permaculture “The  problem is the solution”.  PET bottles are readily available in regions  were recycling facilities are inadequate.  Because of the incredible  longevity of PET that is protected from UV rays, Ecobricking, when  applied properly, becomes a halt to the linear flow of waste.  Ecobrick  documentation directs using cob*, as opposed to cement, to build with.   Bricks are laid completely encased in cob mortar (no UV exposure).   When an Ecobrick construction comes to its end, the cob mortar enables  easy separation of intact bricks from the rubble for the next  construction.  An Ecobrick thus becomes a cradle-to-cradle, indefinitely  reusable building-block.  In such a way Ecobricks open the way for an  infinite cycling of ‘wastes’ (now technical nutrients in the  parlance of cradle-to-cradle).  By creating such a cycle, previously  useless materials have a safe destination that can exceed  the linear  safe storage longevity of a dumpsite.  Ovre the course of time,  ecobricks that are damaged or broken will simply be put back into the  begining of the cycle to make new bricks.   Future generations are thus  handed a nutrient cycle of useful, reusable, segregated pellets rather  than ecosystems that are cocktails of contamination.  The linear flow of  waste transitions into a circle of utility.

“If we think about things having multiple lives,  cradle to cradle, we could design things that can go back to either  nature or back to industry forever… The Stone Age did not end because  humans ran out of stones. It ended because it was time for a re-think  about how we live.” — William McDonough

Thirdly, Ecobricks are a demonstrably effective, zero-cost, viral and  communal solution to solid waste.  For global-south communities that  cannot afford recycling facilities, Ecobricking lets the populace take  control of their solid waste predicament.  Unlike other recycling or  upcycling techniques, no special skills, equipment or facilities are  required to make Ecobricks.  In fact, Ecobricks are best made by the  young and old thus enabling the mobilization of a large percentage of  the population.  Through widespread collaboration plastics are put to  use by communities for the communities.  When implemented as a community  solution, ecobricking can become an accepted, everyday, long term habit  for citizens.  This provides a destination for plastics and empowers  the community with a low cost building alternative.  Completed  Ecobricks, because they were made by many,  lend themselves towards  constructions that serve the community.   Ecobricks are ideal for  building green spaces: parks, herb gardens, food forest, and perhaps  even coffee  planters.  In this way the can both protect and enrich the  futures of our children and the surrounding species.

In our observations of the unfolding of Ecobricking  in pilot  communities, we have noted the disappearance of trash– both on the  streets and most significantly, the core concept of ‘trash’.    In truth  it is this problematic linear concept of ‘an object who’s value has been consumed‘  that is the root of pollution.  With Ecobricks, non-biogreadables that  once had no further use or value (i.e. trash), now become use-full and  endowed with a new life– a life that inherently contains the plan for   future cycles.   This transition from dead to alive, from worthless to  use-full, from linear to cyclical, is integral.   It is a transition  from the endemic linear thinking of the current human world, to that of  the cycles and circles that characterize nature– or more aptly, the real  world.(*4)

“A problem cannot be solved by the same consciousness that generated it.” –Albert Einstein 

If there is any danger in Ecobrick technology it is that this  transition from linear to cyclical thinking is not made.  Afterall, the  destiny of any technology is wrought by the consciousness that wields  it.  When Ecobricks are attempted through the same linear trash  consciousness (i.e. not thinking about the next life of the Ecobrick)  further pollution, whether in a decade or a century, is the unavoidable  result. When Ecobricks are improperly packed, when cement is used in  construction, when only one type of bottle is used, constructions become  weak, soda consumption rises, and worse of all, cement constructions  are impossible to dissemble in a way that enables Ecobricks to find  their next cradle. A bigger mess is left than when we began.   For  proponents of Ecobricks there is a moral responsibility in ensuring that  the proper guidance and documentation are in place to ignite the  requisite jump in thinking.   Fortunately, through social media and the  web it is possible to stay ahead of word-of-mouth spread.

Ecobricks hand future generations and our neighbor species a  healthier environment.  Yet, in themselves Ecobricks are not a solution  to our polluting ways.  The true value of Ecobricks lies in the  opportunity to take the dead-end line of product-to-poison and bend it  into a circle of cycling, controlled and use-full technical nutrients.   In this way, Ecobricks are an essential stepping stone in our  transition to a deeper harmony with the cycles of life– and the sooner  we start packing, the better for all the children, of all species, for  all time.