Ubuntu-Blox Buildout at Finca Morpho

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | March 2018

The roots of Upcycle Santa Fe’s creation are grounded overseas.  It was after many rewarding experiences abroad creating alternative plastic waste management systems/festivals/structures that our Founder, Jo Stodgel, returned to Santa Fe to bring home the Upcycle gospel.  After four years of focusing on our local community of Santa Fe through educational outreach and research projects, February 2018 we returned to the overseas adventures.  We found ourselves deep in the jungle, where paved roads end and dusty paths guide you to a permaculture farm, down on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.

About a year earlier Upcycle Santa Fe became acquainted with a couple of people living in the intentional community (and permaculture wonderland) of Finca Morpho.  Located in Costa Rica, our contact with those at Finca Morpho was limited, but they sought out Upcycle Santa Fe with an interest to build their own Ubuntu-Blox Press.  We provided as much digital information we had at the time, and wished them luck with the build.  It has been exciting to receive inquiries from communities overseas regarding Ubuntu-Blox!  We were curious as to what was going on down there at the Finca.  What were they upcycling?  Was the press built and complete?  Were they building structures?  And to top it all off we had one of those, “Come visit us any time!” outstanding invitations… So fast forward to February 2018, and we’re on a plane heading to Central America.

Within 30 minutes of arriving and touring Finca Morpho we decided we were going to build the community an upgraded, top-notch Ubuntu-Blox Press.  It was clear that the prototype they’d built the year before wasn’t quite cutting it, and we knew building a fresh new press wouldn’t go unnoticed in this group.  Finca Morpho is located deep in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica; a peninsula that is majority national park and wildlife refuge.  This is because the Osa Peninsula is the second most biodiverse place on the planet!  The plants, fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects thrive in this jungle.  Protecting this natural environment for the diverse wonderland that it naturally is, is important.  Because of the intense biodiversity of this place, plastic waste has the potential to do a great deal of damage to exquisite creatures of all sorts. That was definitely part of what inspired us so much to build the Press.

morning beach light
Sunrise golden hour on the beach

We soon found a rhythm to our days.  We’d awake with the sun each morning (for the first time for as long as either of us could remember!).  As soon as the sun rose the temperature would start to climb, but also local Howler monkeys would begin to chant in the treetops as the golden morning light would dance across the Golfo Dulce and into the luscious green jungle where we slept.  It was such a spectacular moment we didn’t dare sleep through it.  Oh, yes, the glorious Costa Rican coffee may have also had something to do with it.  Next came an 8:00 am breakfast with the community members and visiting travelers.  This was always a lovely moment to catch up with everyone in the community and hear about their projects for the day; surf sessions, plant harvesting, tea brewing, music recording, etc… There was always a beautiful moment happening in whichever corner of this jungle finca you chose to look within.

For us – team Upcycle Santa Fe – our corner of this jungle paradise was at the Resource Center.  A giant bamboo structure with a metal roof which sheltered the important stations for plastic separation, compost preparation, and storage of materials that had no immediate need, from the intense sunlight and intermittent rain storms.  We built the Ubuntu-Blox Press under this structure, intuitively knowing it wouldn’t need to travel anywhere else once completed.  We spent our first two days salvaging for materials throughout the Finca.  100% of the needed wood, screws, and tools were stored in some place or another on the farm.  We later purchased two hinges and a door knob from the hardware store, but the remainder of the Press was built entirely of reclaimed materials.  Morning work hours passed quickly as the hot and humid afternoon hours heavily approached.  Temperatures in the mid 90s during the afternoon lead to extra-long lunch breaks where we’d lay low and wait for the hottest part of the day to pass.  We continued our work in the early evening hours, and sometimes after sundown.

It took Jo and I 10 days to build the Press.  During that time we’d have visitors from the finca stop into the resource center filled with curiosity about what we were building, and especially how the whole thing worked.  After a few days I began to feel the wonder I imagine a magician must feel as they continually surprise people when they pull the rabbit out of the hat.  For me, sharing with people the knowledge I have about plastic upcycling – and the many cool ways to actually do it – never gets old.  Each time a visitor would approach us with questions, it was an opportunity to share and teach.  You just never know how each person will respond, nor the capable impact each person may have in this world once you share with them this information.  It felt like magic, and this spell continued for 10 amazing days.

As our final days on the finca approached, the Ubuntu-Blox Press was pieced together one bit at a time, and the beautiful machine finally emerged.  We announced to the community one evening at dinner that we had finished building the Press.  Cheers and applause erupted from the group, as so many of them had witnessed our building project from afar.  Along with our announcement of project completion, our intention was to make it clear to the core community members of Finca Morpho to meet us after lunch the following day to watch a demonstration on how to use the machine, and how to build structures with the Ubuntu-Blox.  We invited the community members to attend the demonstration the following afternoon, and also extended the invitation to all the additional individuals who were visiting the finca at that time (a personal transformation workshop happened to be taking place that week, Metamorphosis, which lead to an influx of people on the finca).

finca morpho-3
The beach at Finca Morpho

Our final day on the finca had come, and Jo and I were up early (like usual) to give a final test run with the newly built Press.  Of course, we had to make sure everything worked properly before the demonstration.  And much to our unsurprised minds, the machine worked perfectly!  That afternoon we gathered in the Resource Center and awaited the community members to join for the demo.  One by one each community member showed up, and then one by one each person on the finca for the completely separate Metamorphosis workshop also showed up to participate in the demonstration.  Jo and I looked at each other wide-eyed and excited to be sharing this information, this moment, with so many interested individuals from around the world.  We spoke, shared, and taught the community about Ubuntu-Blox, and again were met with cheers and applause once we concluded our presentation.  Listening to community members joke about who was going to get a wall built on their cabin first, and how they were going to build this n’ that… the moment was exciting, humbling, transformative, and exceeded any expectations we could’ve possibly attempted to have in such a magical community.

So now what?  Upcycle Santa Fe has, in one aspect, gone full circle, returning to its international inspirations.  With this project we were reminded of the many communities around the world with an already existing interest in building with alternative materials.  These same communities commonly have an issue of plastic crisis and/or housing crisis.  This is how something like an Ubuntu-Blox Press is a two-birds-with-one-stone solution.  Intrigued by the wonder of traveling to new places, and inspired by the great impact made with just one small project, we are again committed to international projects.  Our plan is to generate at least one international Ubuntu-Blox Press buildout each year.  Imagining the difference our small team of two can make on this planet by continuing these adventurous work projects fills our hearts with joy.  In summation, we are so proud to announce this annual international project, and we’re really looking forward to planning our next Ubuntu-Blox Press buildout somewhere else in the world.

Ubuntu-Blox buildout demonstration with the Finca Morpho community

Reduce Your Landfill Contribution by Avoiding Monstrous Hybrids

by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe

If you’ve been keeping up with the zero-waste community lately you may have come across the term Monstrous Hybrid.  A pairing of words that undoubtedly sparks the imagination as to its origin and meaning.

Monstrous Hybrid: [mahn-strus high-brid] Noun. English origin.

1. To describe the hostility of ones ex lover.

2. The worst pizza toppings combo you sadly decided upon which brought on 24 hours of heartburn fire.

3. A term coined by Michael Braungart and William McDonough from Cradle to Cradle Design for a product, component, or material that combines both technical and organic nutrients (such as recyclable paper and poly-vinyl-chloride) in a way that cannot be easily separated, thereby rendering it unable to be recycled or reused. Most monstrous hybrids can only be thrown away and directly contribute to the waste stream.

I’m going to let your ripe brain decide which of those three definitions is the accurate one…

Wherever you’re sitting right now there is very likely a monstrous hybrid in your presence.  Look around you.  Where I’m sitting I see a shiny magazine whose pages are coated with a plastic-based epoxy; a mailing envelope that is on one side paper, and the other side glued bubble-wrap; last night’s part aluminum part paper restaurant to-go box; paper mailing envelopes with plastic windows; packing tape; nylon rope; old cotton-elastic blue jeans; meat pads; Clorox wipes… okay, okay, enough!  Are you getting the point?  We are surrounded by monstrous hybrids.  A product made of two components, usually glued or infused together where one part may be recyclable or reusable, but because it’s sealed to another part we cannot separate it, therefore we cannot recycle it, and can rarely upcycle it, either.  We have no choice but to use it once, then toss it to the landfill.  Our homes, workplaces, landfills, and oceans have been invaded.  There are these objects we well-behaved and compliant consumers have allowed in to our lives for the sake of convenience, but at the expense of our environment.

There’s no denying we live in a capitalist world.  The disease of consumerism has leaked beyond the United States and Europe and into countries throughout the world whose infrastructure often times isn’t prepared for the waste management that comes along with mass consumerism.  Here in the United States our own infrastructure is falling behind the demands of US consumers, too.  But what if we weren’t buying convenient atrocities, like the monstrous hybrids?  What if such objects weren’t even sold on the shelves of our local markets, but instead only products that could easily be recycled or upcycled once we’re finished with them?  This idea has absolute probability of becoming reality.  How do we go from ‘idea’ to ‘reality’?  Conceptual designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby sum up this idea in their book Speculative Everything, “For [designers] the separation from the marketplace creates a parallel design channel free from market pressures and available to explore ideas and issues.  These could be new possibilities for design itself; social, cultural, and ethical implications for science or technology research; or large scale social and political issues such as democracy, sustainability, and alternatives to our current model of capitalism.”

photo credit: Getty images

Step One, awareness.  The term monstrous hybrid isn’t heard on a daily basis, though our encounters with such things are.  If we are to begin the process of conscious consumerism and weed out these harmful monstrous hybrids from our lifestyle and landfill (those two go hand in hand!) we must begin with some awareness on our own behalf.   Awareness is within reach, my friend, and you’re probably already doing it.  You’ve likely already developed an awareness to toss your glass bottle in the recycling bin, or perhaps you’ve switched over to the swirly last-five-years eco-friendly lightbulbs in your home?  Personally, I have found my awareness of unnecessary plastic has increased since becoming an ecobricker.  A little effort seriously goes a long way.

Step two, commit.  That’s a really scary word for some of you… #sorrynotsorry  If awareness while shopping in stores takes hold of our consciousness, then as consumers we begin to change our buying habits and patterns.  Again, you’re probably already doing this.  Organic food?  Fragrance free?  No yellow #5 mustard?  Fair-trade coffee?  All of these buying habits changed because of your awareness to specific health and/or social issues.  Committing to avoiding monstrous hybrids is the next step to take, you lovely conscious consumer, you!  I am going make a commitment, too, and I welcome you try it.  I am no longer accepting my leftovers from restaurants in the offered to-go box.  More times than none, these to-go boxes are not easy to ecobrick or recycle because they’re drenched in food saturation, are a monstrous hybrid, or even worse, styrofoam.  Now you have the next blog post to look forward to where I discuss the awkward but intriguing art of carrying around my own reusable to-go box in my purse.

August 2017

The Lab Results Are In… Get Excited

By: Hallie Brennan | January 2017

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that…” is a popular phrase many identify with in a world of varied interests.  We’ve all got that something in our lives, whether it be a fitness routine or an invention, that keeps others asking the same question (or making the same comment) over and over.  For us at Upcycle Santa Fe our ‘if I had a dollar for’ question is, “Don’t ecobricks off-gas?  They’re made of plastic… so aren’t they unsafe as a building material?” Sometimes we respond to this with questions of our own, such as “Are you wearing plastic (polyester) on your skin right now?” or “How many times every day do you touch plastic to your mouth or unwrap food to eat that is wrapped in plastic?” For us, these seem to be more serious health concerns than living in a well-built home with upcycled plastic insulation in the walls.

jo-1-high-resThe emissions question remains though, or at least it did before our first research experiment with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).   After a year of planning, fundraising, building, testing, and finally reviewing, Upcycle Santa Fe has received some answers to the questions of off-gassing and emissions. Upcycle Santa Fe was a 2016 recipient of a research grant through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program.  We knew right away we needed to use this funding to benefit our inquisitive supporters and partners worldwide.  There was a Doubting Thomas that needed our attention, and we hope you’re paying attention now!  With funding assistance through NMSBA, Upcycle Santa Fe worked alongside LANL to get these tough questions answered, and much to our enjoyment (and also relief!) the lab results are in and favorable to the continued usage of plastic waste as an alternative insulation material.

14102136_653820084767497_5279145463529160852_nLets get straight to it – “LANL advises Upcycle Santa Fe that with the techniques used, there are no observable emissions from the recycled [& upcycled] insulating materials under the conditions measured” (p 7, “Recommendations”, NMBSA Project Report)In total, 5 upcycled insulation materials were tested alongside 2 recycled types of insulation and 3 conventional types of insulation that are commonly available in building stores. The final report concluded that along with the conventional types of insulation, the recycled insulation materials and alternative plastic waste insulation materials do not emit harmful chemicals, or off-gas.  Note that these tests were not performed in extreme temperatures, and that revising this testing under extreme temperature may conclude different results, or as LANL states, “LANL cannot rule out the possibility that degassing or off-gassing may occur under different conditions than those encountered during the sampling period, e.g. higher temperatures.”  (p 7, “Recommendations”, NMBSA Project Report)

testing-2There you have it, folks.  Confidently move forward with stuffing those ecobricks and using them in building projects because this good news actually goes a little further.  Of the 12 insulation test subjects submitted for this research ecobricks and mixed plastic bags performed on par, and in some cases better than conventional and recycled insulation material (i.e.: recycled PET #1, recycled denim, R-Tech foam, and fiberglass batt) when it comes to R-value.  What on Earth is R-value?  It’s the measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness of material.  The higher the R-value, the greater the resistance, or in other words, the insulation actually works to keep your structure warm in the cold, and cool in the hot.  Rigid fiberglass, ecobricks, and mixed plastic bags were the top three performers in R-value, respectively.  Coming in closely behind were recycled PET #1, carton ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  So breathe easy, literally.  The alternative insulation materials you’ve been building with, or are planning to build with, should work as ideally as conventional insulation at a fraction of the cost, and not at the expense of your local landfill or beach.

Knowledge is power!  Empower yourself and your community with these lab results.  Encourage your community to begin, or continue, building structures using plastic waste as a safe and reliable alternative insulation material. Oceanographers believe there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in Earth’s oceans.  Americans, alone, are sending 121 million tons of waste to landfills each year.  Please let that sink in, and we’ll be right back.

Click here to view the full report from LANL



Click, click, Ecobrick!

By: Hallie Brennan | November 2, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering into a judgement free zone, because I’m about to share with you the things I’ve purchased over the internet in the last 30 days:

1 vacuum cleaner

12 sharpie markers

1 bag of dog vitamins

1 roll of glassine paper

12 quartz crystals

Copper wire

Jewelry beads set

1 pair of booties

2 sweaters (it’s Fall, I buy these instead of pumpkin-spiced things…)

Convenience is king, and as a result the online retail world is unstoppable.  By now I think it’s safe to assume everyone has purchased an item over the internet.  It’s easy, care-free, and gives opportunity for the world’s millions of products to be delivered to our doorsteps… Click, click, new vacuum cleaner!

How is this not the best thing since sliced bread?  Well, plastic.  Ordering a product online almost always goes along with shipping that same product.  By the time our purchase magically makes it to our doorstep it’s often times wrapped in plastic, or in a box stuffed with plastic, bubble-wrapped plastic, styrofoam peanuts, plastic packing tape, plastic bags, saran wrap like stuff wrapping more plastic objects to cardboard… It makes you wonder just how many accidents shipping companies have had with broken purchases delivered to doorsteps so that now everything is jumbo-plastic-beans-bubbles-boxes galore!

Alright ladies and gentlemen it’s time to enter into a guilt free zone.  We may be eco-conscious, but the directions of society and the economy often make it difficult to keep up with environmentally conscious living.   We deserve to enjoy convenience, and a little retail therapy every once in a while, too.  Rather than completely banning things from our lives, lets find ways to utilize what we’ve got.  What do we got?  Loovvvvin’  But also plastic waste.  Order the sweaters and booties, vitamins, and vacuum cleaners (consciously, por favor) but remember, almost all of that material your new purchase is delivered in is ecobrickable!


Pro tip: Pop the bubbles of the bubble-wrap before ecobricking.  Help the environment and find mild stress relief at the same time.   You’re welcome, pal.


Talkin’ Trash and Tacos

By: Hallie Brennan, September 2016

If you’ve been Googling “zero waste home” lately chances are you’ve come across images of spotless homes whose “waste” for the year can be seen in a single Mason jar.  Perhaps the thought that comes to your mind is, Easy, no problemo!  Bulk aisle here I come!  And all the power of bulk to you, my friend!  But many of you may be thinking, yeah freakin’ right!  As trashy thoughts of last night’s pizza and Coca-Cola order with extra napkins and that side of ranch start to resurface in your mind.  So lets be real; most of us grew up in a home where tossing something into the trash carries with it less thought than hash-tagging your latest Instagram post.

Jo and I have the luxury of calling beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, our home.  Often times referred to as the City-Different – by means of widespread local businesses, one-of-a-kind Northern New Mexican cuisine, world renowned art markets – but one additional difference that allows Santa Fe to stand out among other US cities is its alternative to landfill usage by means of the local organization, UPCYCLE SANTA FE.

That’s right, Santa Feans, we’re here to help you not get too trashy with your life!  We understand a year’s worth of trash isn’t going to easily fit into a single Mason jar.  Someday I hope we all have the perseverance to achieve the single Mason jar lifestyle, but in the meantime, UPCYCLE SANTA FE is here to help wean you off trash, and here’s how…

We’re building stuff!  And I mean some serious stuff!  Did you know most of what’s tossed into your trashcan, and then into your landfill, can be reused as a building material?  Meet Eco-Bricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  By consciously separating what is Upcyclable, and what you think is trash, you can cut back your landfill contributions tremendously!  (Insider secret: there’s really no such thing as trash.  Stay tuned for our next blog post…!)

So let’s start in the kitchen; an area of the home where a lot of trash can be easily generated by simple everyday tasks like making dinner for yourself, or the family.  Lets talk about tacos.  You like tacos, right?  You’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or carnivore… chances are you like tacos.  I’m inviting you to taco night at our place.  Zero-waste taco night; of course, there’s a catch to these delicious, Earth friendly, tacos!


Here we have our ingredients for delicious slow-cooked BBQ chicken tacos.

  • 2 raw, bone-in, chicken breasts
  • 1 bottle of BBQ sauce
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 bag of kale
  • 1 bundle of cilantro
  • 2 avocados
  • 3 limes
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 2 packages of deli cheese
  • 4 jalapeños
  • 1 can of corn
  • 1 Amber Ale (for that tasty beer baste flavor; irresistible)

After whipping up some of the best chicken tacos this side of the Mississippi, we’re left with quite a mess in the kitchen.  The aftermath photo of fresh ingredients from the grocery store is less pleasing to view.  It’s kind of gross, right?

Trash talkin'


Lets remove the easy stuff: recyclables and compost material.  Glass, aluminum and tin are tossed into the recycle bin, and all of the discarded organic materials are tossed into the backyard compost pile.  (If you’re not composting food waste from your kitchen it’s totally time you start!)



Here’s what remains after recyclables and compost material has been removed.  Things have already gotten a little less trashy around here!   I’ve taken a few minutes to rinse out that chip bag, scrub off the raw chicken gunk from the laminated deli paper, and rinse off cheese residue from the deli wrap.  Once rinsed completely clean of residue, place the clean “trash” on a drying rack to drip dry.  You might be thinking how disgusting this all sounds, and wondering why on Earth someone would take time to do all of that?  Again, if this stuff grosses you out, why on Earth do we assume Earth enjoys it?  Does Earth enjoy your raw chicken gunk deli paper sticking to Her soil?  Probably not, folks…

Time to make the ecobrick!  Whatever is an eco-brick?  Click here to find out!


The key to a successful eco-brick is clean and dry non-organic “trash”



Once all the “trash” is clean and dry we begin to stuff the eco-brick in what becomes a wonderful bicep workout.  I’ve got my favorite wooden spoon, but drumsticks, chopsticks, or long-handled paintbrushes may also do the trick… stuff the “trash” into the plastic bottle.  Keep it firm from the bottom to the top.  Remember, after all, you’re creating a BRICK!  A building material!  Once you’ve filled the brick to the brim simply drop it off at the UPCYCLE SANTA FE eco-brick collection point at:

917 Don Juan Street, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Don’t know of an eco-brick collection point in your town?  Google it!  You’d be surprised to find out about environmental activists getting active in your own community.  And if you aren’t able to find an eco-brick collection point in your town, we’d like to encourage you to start the first!  Take this honorable chance of a moment into your own hands, and plan your own building project!  We’d love to help you with this, just shoot us an email!