Despite the title, this post has nothing to do with our house extension, and everything to do with a post I wrote around a year ago about single use plastics. By chance, I came across some information about eco bricks, which are an increasingly popular way to deal with some types of plastic. Basically, an eco brick is a plastic bottle filled with pieces of non-recyclable plastics until it reaches a certain density (a weight that is one third of the liquid capacity of the bottle), which can then be used for building projects. From what I have gathered so far, the idea is that the bottles will contain the plastics and prevent leaching of contaminants into the soil, and keep those plastics out of landfill until a time comes that technology to recycle them has been developed.
For a lot of years (as in the whole time I have owned a house), I had naively been putting all types of plastic into our green lidded bin, which in our part of the country is for recyclable waste. I read the lists of what could and couldn’t go in, and our list said that they accepted most types of plastic, so I no longer read labels and dutifully washed our plastic waste and popped it in there. Then, after reading about eco bricks, I discovered that quite a lot of plastic I had assumed was fine to go in there was, in fact, not recyclable at all. Quite a shocking number of items we had brought came in packing which bears the following logo:
After reading further about eco bricks, and prompted by my son’s recycling project with Beavers, I began to wash and collect the non-recyclable waste in a bag, along with a suitable bottle for making our first brick. The advice online suggests that a 500ml bottle is a great place to start as it is not too large, and allows time to become familiar with the brick making process. Basically, in order to achieve the minimum weight for the brick to be used for building, you need to cut up the plastic into small-ish squares, and use a stick to poke it into the bottle as you go so that you can fit in as much as possible. It really is a challenge; that last little bit takes some squeezing in to get it up to the minimum weight. I had a stick that was the handle for a preserving spoon and it was just right-apparently if your stick is too pointy it can puncture the bottle and undo all of your hard work. We did it as a family-I prepared and cut up plastic, my daughter poked it in and my son squashed it down, with the stick which they creatively named ‘Squashy’. (Mr C was asleep after a night shift and avoided the chaos!)
One thing that surprised me was quite how much you could fit in-I had a plastic bag for life filled with items to go in the bottle and every single last piece fitted in. Our bottle currently weighs in at 180g, slightly above the minimum 167g, so we are very pleased. It took us only two weeks to collect that much though, and I thought we were doing well at making ‘good’ choices when buying things. If you take our family as ‘typical’, that is 90g per week multiplied by 52, making 4680g per year of plastic landfill. Multiply that again by even just the houses on our street, and that makes over 56kg per year. Imagine how much a whole village or town produces, and how much is already sitting in landfill!
Once the brick is finished, you log it online, a process which involves being given a serial number, taking a photo of the brick and having it validated by three other people. Once this is complete, you find a local collection point and drop it off, where it can then be used for building projects. (For example, they can be used indoors for stools etc if they are larger 2 litre bottles, and can also be used outside as the centre of concrete-covered structures.) This is where my one brick falls down-I could go through the validating process, however, the eco brick movement has not yet spread to Lincolnshire (most things take a long time to become popular here!) and so there is nowhere to take it. The carbon footprint of transporting it to a project further away would negate any benefits of me having ‘saved’ all of that plastic. For now, we will keep it-I think my son is going to take it to Beavers and share if there is a suitable time, and hopefully more people will make one.
One thing is for certain though, and that is that we learned an incredible amount. The sheer volume of things we bring into our home that we did not know couldn’t be recycled has been a real shock, even Mr C has said we should look at what we are buying and try to avoid these non-recyclable materials where possible. You might be wondering exactly which things can’t be recycled, and although it varies from place to place, anything with the logo pictured above obviously can’t be. Things with that logo on include: film lids from fruit pots, crisp and snack packets, stretchy plastic bags such as the ones fruit and vegetables come in, packets that bread rolls etc. come in. The list isn’t exhaustive, but even just those few examples show how widespread it is.
The idea of eco bricks is a good one, but I am not sure it is something we will continue with partly due to the time involved, and partly because I am not sure it is the best ways to deal with plastic. It is more part of a learning process for us-from making the brick, we discovered that the stretchy bags can be recycled at some supermarkets, crisp and snack packets can be recycled at certain Terracycle points (and I then researched and discovered one very locally). We are going to buy more loose fruit and vegetables from the greengrocers, even though they are a little more expensive. These changes will (hopefully) reduce considerably the amount of non-recyclable waste from out household. If we manage to halve it, then that is a reduction of 2.3kg per year. Not much, but what if everyone did it? What if everyone made one of these bricks, just as an experiment. Even if they didn’t do it again, the learning could help start a revolution.
Us as consumers can do so much, but one question that has plagued me since beginning this is how on earth it was ever deemed acceptable to manufacture these materials which are known not to be recyclable. Why are they still being produced? And if humans were clever enough to invent plastic and use it, why are they not clever enough to deal with the problem and stop it getting even worse? Why can we travel to other planets, but fail to protect the one we live on? Yes, these bricks are a great start, and a good way to ‘hold’ the plastics in a way that means they are kept together for when better recycling methods are finally developed, but there has got to be another way, otherwise we are literally storing up the problem for the future. We need to reduce the production of these plastics-I bought some cotton dishcloths the other day to use as an alternative to microfibre cloths, which are known to shed microscopic fibres into the water when washed, and they were in a plastic bag. You guessed it, it wasn’t recyclable. The cloths did not need a plastic bag, they could just as well have been wrapped in a paper band with the barcode on them. What a waste!
Of course, there is the option of boycotting items which produce excess waste, but this isn’t always possible for a variety of reasons-the cost of some non-packaged items is very high, which is prohibitive to those who cannot afford them. Making bread at home is lovely in theory, but not necessarily practical for all, the list goes on. We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something. We all need to do something, and we need to start now.
What will you do?