Ecobricks are plastic bottles (or milk cartons) densely stuffed with loose plastics. They present quite simply the most accessible method for upcycling and utilizing post-consumer plastics in the world, as all that is needed to make one is a bottle, some plastic and a stick. Ecobricks were first made in number and utilized on a community scale in Guatemala in 2003 with Susana Heisse’s project Pura Vida Atitlan. Since then numerous projects have been started all around the globe.
PLASTIC CONTAINMENT & COMPRESSION – Ecobricks function first and foremost as a means to contain and compress high-volume, un-recyclable plastics such as chip wrappers and plastic films. Plastic bags do not last long in the environment, in as far as retaining their original shape. Within months to a couple of years they will photo-degrade into thousands of tiny pieces that are that much harder to recover. When plastics are contained and compressed into ecobricks, they can stay in one place for a very long time.
ALTERNATIVE BUILDING MATERIAL & INSULATION – Furthermore, ecobricks can be utilized as alternative building materials in many different ways. They can be used to make modular furniture, when adhered together in a hexagonal pattern. They can be laid and spaced horizontally and then mortared to make all sorts of raised garden beds, benches and even large load-bearing walls. They can also be used as a wall filler in frame structures. In the latter example, compressed plastics provide an additional benefit as well – insulation value! When plastics are compressed, thousands of air pockets are created which make for some quality insulation.
HOW TO MAKE ECOBRICKS – Ecobricks are very simple to make, but there are some important guidelines to follow for the best results.
CLEAN AND DRY – First of all, only clean and dry plastic materials should be put into ecobricks. Glass, metal, and especially paper and organic material such as food residues should not be used. Dirty plastics can be rinsed and dried, or a slightly damp rag can be used to clean them. Any paper, water, or food residues in ecobricks will inevitably encourage undesirable mold growth.
Another point to make here is that the best ecobricks with the most consistent density are those that are made using only soft plastics, such as plastic bags or wrappers. We make this point while also understanding that for many people around the world, ecobricks present the only option for dealing with other types of plastic such as clamshell packaging or polystyrene foam.
STRONG BOTTLES – Bottle choice can make a big difference when making long-lasting ecobricks. We recommend using #1 PET bottles, the thicker the better, and discourage the use of #2 HDPE bottles due to their quick rate of photo-degradation (breaking down in the presence of UV light). Another thing to consider is the size of the bottle cap or opening; bottles with a bigger opening are of course easier to fill, and bigger pieces of plastic can be incorporated.
DENSELY STUFFED – The denser ecobricks are, the better. This density can be achieved by layering and compressing the plastics from the bottom to the top, and by minimizing the amount of big pieces of hard plastic which create big air pockets. Using a stick of some sort, fill and pack the bottle layer by layer, starting the bottom with soft plastics. If hard plastics are being ecobricked, then it is a good idea to break or cut them into the smallest possible pieces, and pack them along with soft plastics to minimize gaps.
HOW TO BUILD WITH ECOBRICKS – There are many ways to utilize ecobricks in construction projects, let alone all of the art installation or project ideas that one could come up with. We focus here on construction because we are advocates for utilizing ecobricks in their longest-use applications, and long-lasting structures provide that utility. If ecobricks are going to be used in outdoor or exterior applications, it is advised and important to cover them with plaster or sheathing of some sort to prevent UV light from photo-degrading them.
MODULAR UNITS – Popularized by Russell Maier and the Ecobricks.org crew in Indonesia, modular ecobrick units are made by basically gluing ecobricks together, usually with silicon. The important thing here is to use the same size bottles for the ecobricks, which in developed countries are actually hard to come by as we have so many different sizes and shapes of bottles. In less developed parts of the world, many of the plastic bottles are of the same shape and sizes, which makes it much easier to build modular units, stools, tables, benches and such. All you have to do to start building these units is to apply silicon in a vertical bead wherever each bottle comes into contact with another. Tape can be wrapped around the completed units to keep them in place while the silicon cures.
HORIZONTAL MASONRY – There is a rich history of using bottles in construction projects. Some notable and outstanding examples are Eco-Tec founder Andreas Froese’s usage of sand-filled bottles in many projects, and Earthship Biotecture founder Michael Reynolds’s usage of glass bottles (and aluminum cans) in many projects. The first project integrating ecobricks in this way is most likely a bench constructed by Pura Vida Atitlan in Guatemala in 2004. To build with ecobricks this way, all one has to do is lay ecobricks side by side in mortar, spaced so that the mortar creates a honeycomb shape around each ecobrick. This spacing is important to maintain structural integrity in the wall, and should be at least an inch if not more. Ecobricks are not structural in this sense, they are merely spacers for the mortar matrix. Any type of mortar can be used for this type of construction, although some ecobrickers discourage the use of cement and instead prefer cob (sand, clay and straw mix) so that ecobricks can be more easily retrieved in the case of demolition.
A simple guide for utilizing this method has been made by the Ecobricks.org crew. This as well as the Vision Ecobricks Guide (an excellent intro to ecobricks that is available in several languages) can be found on their Downloads and Resources page.
FILLING FRAMES – Ecobricks come into their best use and application (in our humble opinion) when they are utilized as a wall-filling insulation material. With the rudimentary R-value testing that we did with Los Alamos National Laboratory (the study focused primarily on off-gassing), we found that ecobricks tested second best out of 11 sample insulation materials. The only material that was able to regulate temperature flux better was rigid fiberglass used for roofing. Compressing plastic creates thousands of tiny air pockets which prevent the passage of heat; it is thus an excellent insulation material.
Starting with Susana Heisse’s Pura Vida Atitlan projects initiated in 2003, the frame-filling method has been primarily developed and utilized in Guatemala, although examples of this construction style can be found in other places like South Africa as well. The organization Hug It Forward has built 127 schools in Guatemala using this method. To build in this way, ecobricks must be sorted by their thickness and utilized according to the depth of the frame. The frame can be made of wood, metal, or steel-reinforced concrete, and there are several methods to contain ecobricks in a framed structure. In one method, chicken wire is stretched tightly on one side of the frame, ecobricks are tied one-by-one onto the chicken wire, more chicken wire is stretched on the other side, gaps between ecobricks are filled with soft plastic and then the wall is plastered.
In the case that exterior sheathing is being used, 2 ft wide chicken wire (or 2 ft wide pieces of drywall) is stretched horizontally and anchored to the studs on the interior, ecobricks are layered with soft plastic in between to fill the section, and the process is repeated to the top of the wall. Another method that we have utilized in the past has been to simply fill wooden pallets with ecobricks to make building panels which can then be anchored to solid uprights. We have utilized these panels primarily in the bench projects that we have done at local schools.
Check your local building codes if you are thinking of utilizing ecobricks in this way for any bigger structures, and support our fundraising efforts to conduct the final research (R-value and flame spread) that will allow us to build on a bigger scale in the USA: https://gofundme.com/ecobrick
Pura Vida Atitlan has published a construction guide for this method but at the moment it is only available in Spanish. It can be found on their Manuales Virtuales page.
SOME OF OUR ECOBRICK PROJECTS:
- Ecobrick Doghouse – Mar 2015
- Ecobrick Academy – Monte Del Sol Charter School – Apr/Nov 2015
- Ecobrick Academy – Academy of Sustainability Education, Santa Fe High School – Jan/Mar 2016
- Building with Ecobricks – Innovation Academy, Santa Fe High School – Jul 2017
- Ecobrick River Cleanups with the Santa Fe Watershed Association – 2015 to Present
SOME OTHER ECOBRICK PROJECTS AROUND THE WORLD: