The Plastic Recycling Crisis We’re Facing Today

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | April 2018

It was about four years ago I learned my curbside recycling was being shipped overseas; to China, in particular.  Hearing this information for the first time I found it difficult to accept.  It made no sense, and completely changed my mindset about my ‘green’ household, and how I was “doing my part” to save the planet.  Cities across the US have recycling facilities, and for decades we’ve been assuming that’s where the recycling actually happens.  Turns out those facilities are mere collection and sorting agencies, and the recycling doesn’t happen for another 6,000 miles, or so.  To top it all off, since January 2018 all of this has been flipped on its head, and not in a sustainable way.  Truth is, just a tiny fraction of what you place into your curbside bin is honestly recycled.   

First things first, why have we been shipping recyclables to China?  In a nutshell, trade deficit.  You’ve likely noticed the majority of goods in your home have a Made in China stamp or tag.  This has been the norm for decades, and it is because China is the world’s leading producer of exported goods.  What does a country need to create these goods?  Materials.  What’s a cheap material to access?  Recyclables.  One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.  As China transports container ships full of ripe consumer goods to America’s west coast, those container ships do not return to China empty, but instead return full of plastics, paper, and scrap metal; aka, recyclables.  China purchases these materials for extremely inexpensive rates – an accommodation on behalf of the US regarding that trade deficit I mentioned earlier.  Just how much plastic does the world send to China?  In 2016, 800,000 metric tons of plastic waste was exported from the UK, alone.

Second, how’s this affecting the environment?  In the summer of 2017, China announced it no longer wanted to be “the world’s garbage dump”. The foreign waste ban they threatened (which heavily centered on plastics) went into effect January 1, 2018.  So how is China the world’s garbage dump if a recycling facility and garbage dump are two entirely different things?  After all, isn’t “recycling” Green?  A lack of regulation has lead to many Chinese citizens developing their own backyard recycling facilities.  The result is contaminated soils and watersheds.  The 2016 documentary Plastic China, directed by Jiuliang Wang, was banned from China’s internet soon after the film went viral.  The film highlights the humanitarian and environmental crisis unregulated recycling facilities throughout China have bred, and it becomes clear exactly how China became the world’s garbage dump, and why it no longer wants to be.

In addition to the humanitarian and environmental crisis occurring in China, there are alarming statistics from the world’s recycling programs.   A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances has found 91% of the worlds plastics are not recycled.  Let that sink in for a moment… This study attempted to calculate the entire amount of plastics created in the world, ever.  That calculated number is 8.3 billion metric tons.  From that, 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste in landfills, oceans, or flying around the Earth as litter.  According to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report, we produce 20,000 plastic bottles every single second.  Less than half the plastic bottles created in a single year are collected for recycling, and of those collected, just 7% are actually recycled.   Now, let’s let that sink in for a moment, as well… From the time we purchase a plastic bottled or wrapped product, consume it, and then recycle it, the chances of that plastic package ending up as wasted litter are far too high. 

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What is being massively revealed to the public is a broken, sub par recycling industry.  Plastic recycling was already not working, and now China has banned a majority of the plastic waste being imported for recycling.  To be specific, the plastic ban includes PET, PE, PVC and PS.  That’s #1, #2, #3, #4 and #6.  Five out of seven types of plastics are no longer recyclable.  These five plastics are also the most common types of plastic found in millions of consumer products.  Water and soda bottles, milk jugs, detergent bottles, plastic packing, shopping bags, toys, cd cases, etc…  This means our landfills, rivers, and oceans are about to get an even bigger hit from our consumer habits.  At this point in time, the plastic you toss into your curbside recycling bin is not going to be recycled.  As if you didn’t already have a reason to cut back on the plastic binge.  

Now don’t go throwing the baby out with the bathwater; solutions do exist.  If you’ve been reading any of our blog posts over the years you know what the solutions are.  A link in this deadly chain must be broken, and that can happen when we start building with Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  Every single one of the plastics now refused by the recycling industry are absolutely accepted by these alternatives.  Many construction projects have taken off around the world utilizing Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox, saving thousands of pounds of plastic from landfills and oceans.  In the United States, the trend has been slow to start due to a hefty dose of bureaucracy regarding alternative building materials, but small outdoor structures such as exterior walls, raised garden beds, dog houses, etc… can be built using these compressed plastic technologies.  Upcycle Santa Fe is currently working towards obtaining the required certification that will allow Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox to become permitted insulation materials for large, habitable structures in the U.S.  How can the world’s plastic pollution crisis be altered if post-consumer plastic waste is instead utilized as construction materials?  The seeds for change have already been planted…  

Another solution lies in what many today call Conscious Consumerism; buying with mindfulness and need, rather than excess and greed.  Before turning a blind eye and participating in an already failing recycling system, are we willing to reflect on our own consumer habits and make some changes in our daily lives?  Plastic isn’t going anywhere, like literally for 500 years, but what I mean is plastic production will likely never cease to exist.  We must become conscious with our buying habits and cut back!  Remember that 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste I mentioned earlier?  You have some serious incentive, my friend.  Buy bulk, utilize reusable containers, bring your own darn reusable bag, inform yourself to the violent scam of bottled water and stop buying it, for cryin’ out loud.  There is a crisis occurring, and our consumer habits are at the dead center of it.

I encourage you to begin stuffing your own Ecobricks.  Here in Santa Fe we provide an Ecobrick Drop Off collection box.  You may drop your Ecobricks there at any time of the day.  To the many, many more of you outside the city of Santa Fe, I encourage you to research who is collecting Ecobricks in your community.  You just may be surprised by sustainable practices already happening in your neighborhood.  And if no one is collecting Ecobricks in your community yet, I challenge you to be the first, and truly do your part.

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Upcycle Santa Fe Ecobrick Collection drop off box, located at 917 Don Juan Street, Santa Fe, NM, 87501
Online Sources:



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.

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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).

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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.