Sporty and I have tried (and failed) on numerous occasions to say no to plastic for good. We eventually realised that wasn’t an achievable goal for us, so we decided to start making ecobricks instead.
Ask Google about plastic pollution and you’ll find yourself mired in disturbing plastic waste statistics. Reading through them, it’s easy to see why we need to quit using plastic.
Plastic kitchen utensils made and discarded by the billions each year. Landfill plastic waste set to outweigh the Empire State Building by 2050. Animals enduring unspeakable suffering as a result of the plastic straws, microplastics, fishing nets, balloons, etc. humans discard everyday.
Plastic is estimated to last between 450 years and forever. When you consider that the US generates more than 35 million tons of plastics and recycles just 8.3% of it, forever is a very long time.
But when you’re a city-dwelling human in the 21st century quitting plastic is easier said than done. Aside from a couple of zero-waste unicorns, the vast majority of us find it almost impossible to avoid.
Which is why Sporty and I decided to start ecobricking.
Start Making Ecobricks: What, Why and How
Sporty and I started ecobricking a few years ago as a way to dispose of single use plastic in a more mindful way. If you’ve never heard of them, ecobricks are a way to divert plastic from the landfill and stop it from entering the environment and causing harm. They also act as building blocks (hence the name).
Ecobricking is nothing new. According to Refash, the world’s first platform for upcycled fashion and accessories, ecobricking started in Guatemala in 2003 before spreading to the Philippines and then South Africa.
The Global Ecobrick Alliance provides a more detailed and technical explanation of what an ecobrick is. They also have a wealth of information on everything from the long story of plastic to why making ecobricks matters as well as how to make them.
The GEA trainer directory now has trainers based in the United States, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Indonesia. If ecobricking is something you’d like to learn more about, you can always reach out to one of them for an in-person workshop.
Sporty and I give our ecobricks to Waste-ED, a Cape Town-based waste management consultancy started by Candice Mostert in 2014. Their ‘back your brick’ initiative ensures every ecobrick is used in local building programmes.
How to Make an Ecobrick: A Quick Primer
To make an ecobrick you’ll need an empty plastic bottle, a long stick and a good pair of kitchen scissors. Gather your plastics and cut them up into small pieces. It can be tempting to stuff them in whole, but resist the urge.
Ecobricks must be packed tightly in order to achieve the density required. Cutting the plastic up before putting it into your plastic bottle makes this easier to do. Feed the small pieces of plastic into the bottle and use the stick every so often to push them down.
Don’t stop until your bottle is rock hard and full to the very top. This will take a lot longer than you think. You’ll actually be amazed by just how much single use plastic you can squeeze into a single bottle.
Ecobrick Projects to Get the Creative Juices Flowing
If you don’t have an ecobrick initiative in your area, don’t worry, there are still plenty of creative ways to use them at home. You could build a garden with ecobricks, turn them into functional projects such as walls and infrastructures and or make furniture with them.
GEA has an entire section on their website that walks you through everything you need to know to build with ecobricks. You can also keep it simple and just use them in your garden as flower bed edges. If you’re feeling adventurous you could even create an ecobrick pond.
Are Ecobricks a Solution to Plastic Pollution?
I would answer this with a yes and. While ecobricks are a solution to plastic pollution, they can serve as an excuse to let your shopping habits slide. (It’s a slippery slope.) Ecobricking a sweet wrapper doesn’t make you feel as guilty as throwing it in the bin.
This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, you end up with a lot of plastic to put in your ecobrick (not fun) and secondly, it’s still important to say no to single use plastic as far as possible.
Ecobricks should be used as a last resort. It’s for those situations where avoiding plastic isn’t possible, such as staple products you can’t get package-free or in recyclable plastic (supplements, medicine, chocolate, etc.).
Our goal should always be a zero waste and package free lifestyle. We’ll never be perfect, obviously, but we must still try our best. This, coupled with ecobricking, will hopefully return us to a plastic free ocean one day.
5+ Swaps That Make It Easier to Say No to Single Use Plastic
As hard as it is to avoid plastic in your day-to-day life, there’s still a lot you can do to limit how much you do engage with it. The examples below aren’t hard to do, it’s more a matter of getting into the habit.
1. Refuse the Plastic Straw and Drink Straight From the Glass
Too out there? Buy a reusable bamboo straw that you carry with you. Just remember, you’ll also need a tiny brush to clean it with. Fortunately a lot of places sell these with the straw.
2. Carry Your Own Cutlery and Cloth Napkin
Carrying your own cutlery and cloth napkin with you means you can refuse the plastic cutlery when you buy takeout. It sounds like a mission but it’s really not. Take it out and clean it when you get home from work and pop it straight back in your bag. Easy peasy.
3. Reusable Coffee Cup and Stainless Steel Water Bottle
Get yourself a reusable coffee cup and stainless steel water bottle to caffeinate and hydrate on the go. Rather than using bottled water at home, invest in a filtering system like a Brita jug or clay water filter.
4. Pack Your Own Lunch
Packing your own lunch is another way to say no to single use plastic. It’s also better for your budget and your health. You could even start a lunch club at work, which will encourage everyone to stop eating at their desks. It’s also a great excuse to invest in a Golden Warhol Girls lunch bag.
5. Reusable Shopping Bags
Taking your own reusable bags when you go shopping means you can avoid using the plastic bags that are still so prevalent in most stores. They’re relatively inexpensive to buy and easy to store. If you forget them at home just pack your groceries loose in the car, so what if everything rolls around.
Bonus Sustainable Living Ideas
These are some additional sustainable living ideas you can implement at home that will help you say no to plastic more consistently. Like the other examples, these aren’t difficult swaps. It’s more a matter of getting used to a different way of doing things.
- Replace single use plastic bags (barrier bags) with cloth produce bags.
- Ditch the brightly coloured plastic dish sponges in favour of biodegradable sponges.
- Forgo sandwich bags and get some Stasher bags or reusable containers instead.
Adhere to the 7 Rs of Sustainability (As Much as Possible)
The 7 Rs of sustainability vary depending on whose website you consult. I ended up with 10 Rs and they all seemed pertinent, so I included them.
Because I’m the editor and I can do what I like.
Don’t take the straw, plastic cutlery, plastic bag, etc. Most restaurants have a ‘refuse utensils’ checkbox when ordering online. It doesn’t always work because staff still have to be trained out of the habit. Check it anyway. Better yet, don’t order takeout (as often).
Do your best to reduce plastic consumption. As much as possible, keep it to the essentials. If you can avoid it, do. Sporty has started making chocolate at home so that we don’t fall prey to store bought treats. It works most of the time.
Extend the life of plastic by reusing it instead of automatically throwing it away. Use plastic shopping bags as bin liners. Wash sandwich baggies and use them again. And again. When they break, ecobrick them. Get into the habit of thinking before you throw something away. Can it serve another purpose?
When something breaks see if you can fix it or get it fixed. Of course, this mindset needs to be in place at the time of purchase. Invest in things that are made to last. When they do eventually give out there’s a better chance of finding someone to repair them for you. A lot of brands are offering free repairs as part of the deal when you buy their clothes or shoes. Consider buying from them rather than a fast fashion outlet.
This one we all know, but a refresher on how to do it properly is always useful. Understanding what every recycling symbol actually means is important. However, it’s prudent to dig deeper. Recycling rules differ depending on where you live.
For example, Woolworths South Africa has their own set of recycling labels. If you live in the UK, you’ll find Recycle Now to be a useful source. Stateside readers can consult How2Recycle to learn the ins and outs.
Find out how it works where you live, so that you’re better equipped to make the right choices when you do go shopping.
Rather than throwing your food waste away, find a community garden to donate it to. You might assume (like I did) that food will biodegrade really quickly wherever you leave it. But that’s not the case.
It turns out that the lack of oxygen on a landfill prevents this natural process from occurring. A lettuce takes 25 years to decompose in this environment. Rather return it to the earth by composting it yourself or giving it to someone who has a compost heap.
Take a look at your consumer habits and see if there are areas you can improve. Habit is a sneaky thing. Very often we do things because that’s how we were taught or because we got into the habit for some other reason.
When you take the time to step back and consider your actions you’ll be amazed by all the ways you can up level your consumer habits to reduce the amount of waste you create.
If you see litter on the street pick it up and throw it away, especially if it’s something that could potentially harm an animal. If it’s obviously unsanitary don’t touch it, but if not put your squeamish sensibilities aside and do it for the animals.
Most of us carry hand sanitiser with us anyway nowadays and even if you don’t have some readily available, it probably won’t be long before you get somewhere you can wash your hand (you only need one to pick up trash).
Regifiting helps you avoid the buying cycle by giving someone something you received but don’t use, need or like. A lot of people struggle with the idea of regifting, because they feel guilty.
But think about it. The item in question is probably in the garage, basement, back of your closet or wherever you dump the stuff you don’t use. At least by regifting it someone else gets to use and enjoy it.
Repurposing or upcycling is a great way to breathe new life into something. The internet littered with upcycling ideas that will turn your trash into treasures. Granted, not all of us are Pinterest crafty types, but there are still plenty of ways to avoid sending something to the landfill before its time.
Final Thoughts on Ecobricking and Ditching Plastic
The ecobricking community is growing stronger everyday, with more and more people turning to it as means to dispose of single use plastic and build sustainably. But as I mentioned earlier, the long goal is still to live plastic-free.
Making ecobricks should be seen more as an interim measure than a longterm solution. The aim shouldn’t be to find a way to dispose of single use plastic. Rather, we need to stop it being made in the first place.
If there isn’t a market for it manufacturers won’t make it. That will only happen if we stop buying it in the first place. Yes, easier said than done, but we need to at least try. (I’m writing this for us, too.)
Let’s commit to pulling up our Ocean Solmate Crew Socks together.