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 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 a PET bottle solid with one type of non-recyclable, non-biodegradable materials (i.e. plastic, cellophane, 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 toxins. 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 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 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 everyone’s in my town, of the towns of the entire 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.
First, the very process of Ecobricking gets to the root 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 honour 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). Ecobricks 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 toxins 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. Over the course of time, ecobricks that are damaged or broken will simply be put back into the beginning 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, every day, 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 whose 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. After all, 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 worst 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 neighbour 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.