What is an ecobrick – and how do you make one?

Innovation surrounding how we deal with the plastic pollution problem is constantly evolving and becoming more and more impressive. Ecobricks are one way of taking products that might otherwise have entered landfill or incineration plants, and turning them into a valuable resource.  So whether you’ve come to find out what an ecobrick is, or to learn how to make one, we can help!

Photo credit: Global Ecobrick Alliance

8 minutes to read

What is an ecobrick, anyway?

Before we get into how to start making your first ecobrick, let’s delve a little into what they are and their potential benefits.
 
Simply put, an ecobrick is a building block, made from plastic that has already been manufactured and would otherwise be discarded. Even more simply, it’s a plastic bottle, stuffed full with plastic!
 
what is an ecobrick pinterest pin
 

Where did ecobricks originate?

The very first ecobrick was created in Guatemala, as a way to combat the lack of any efficient disposal or recycling schemes. Environmental activist and former East German prisoner Susana Heisse was alarmed at the volume of plastic waste that surrounded beautiful Lake Atitlán . Rather than just consigning the plastic to landfill, she wanted to find a way to repurpose and reuse it. So, the ecobrick was born!
 
Plastic in landfill takes hundreds of years to decompose (sometimes into the thousands!). Ecobricking allows us to create robust, durable and reusable building blocks. The process secures the plastic, preventing it from harming our environment in years to come.
 
Since its inception, the ecobrick movement has grown and grown, and has now become an international phenomenon. Ecobricking uses plastic as a valuable resource and provides a non-capital construction solution to projects across the globe.
 

The benefits of ecobricks over traditional materials

The main benefit of creating ecobricks is that they remove plastic from the biosphere*. This stops them from biodegrading or breaking down into microplastics. As we know, plastic pollution is one of the most widely talked-about environmental issues. So by repurposing plastic into ecobricks, we’re helping to keep plastic out of landfill and out of the oceans.

*Hold on, what’s the biosphere?

Good question. The biosphere is made up of the areas on the surface and in the atmosphere of the planet Earth, where life exists. So by the biosphere, we mean the ground, the air and the oceans – anywhere living organisms can survive.

Non-capital regenerative technology

Another huge benefit of ecobricking is that no specialist manufacturing facility is required. No additional energy is needed to power machines, run factories or keep a workforce comfortable and safe. Ecobricking uses resources that are already in circulation, and are typically made by people on an individual or volunteer basis. So they usually cost nothing to create.

What’s more, most ecobrick construction projects use bottles and waste plastic from the community that the project is taking place in. This keeps transport costs and associated emissions low.

Inspirational and collaborative

Best of all, ecobricks are inspiring! By pushing your plastic into a bottle, you come face-to-face with the amount of plastic you use. It’s easy to throw something in the bin and forget all about it. We are disconnected from the processes and resources that have created it, and where it might end up. Ecobricks connect us with what we consume and with its future potential. 

Ecobricking should be done in tandem with making the effort to reduce and reuse the amount of plastic we use. This is important because, in an ideal world, there would not be enough plastic to make ecobricks! Making ecobricks puts the issue, and one of its solutions, right in front of us. This helps create more environmentally-conscious consumers and more collaborative communities.

Ecobricking is also a great activity to do with children. It’s fun, engaging and really helps teach them about plastic and pollution.

 

What can ecobricks be used for?

Ecobricks are both versatile and, when made correctly, incredibly strong and durable. 

According to the Global Ecobrick Alliance, “99% of ecobricks are being used for small home, school and community creations”. Because they come in a variety of weights, sizes and colours, they can put to use in a wide range of scenarios. The most popular projects include modular furniture and garden design, but there are examples of larger-scale constructions, too.

Bottle schools

According to Guatamala-based bottle school experts Hug It Forward, it takes 6,500 20 fl oz  (590 ml) drinks bottles to build a two-room schoolhouse. A bottle of this size creates an ecobrick that weighs approximately 200 g.

This means that building a 6,500-bottle schoolhouse not only provides an education facility for students, but also collects and regenerates 1.3 tonnes of plastic from the local area. 

If you want to have a look at some ecobrick project ideas, I’ve put together this Pinterest board, which shows the versatility and creativity that ecobricks bring to projects and design. If you’ve seen any other inspiring ecobrick constructions, please send us the details via the comments below or on our social media channels to help us make this board bigger and better!

How to make your very first ecobrick

You’re up to speed on what they are and what they’re used for. Now to find out how to make an ecobrick, and what to do with it when you’re finished.

What equipment and materials do I need to make an ecobrick?

I’ll go into more detail later but this is the basic list of what you’ll need to start making an ecobrick:

  • A clean, dry plastic bottle.
  • A stick.
  • Clean, dry plastic, both soft and hard.
  • Scissors.
  • Oil or enamel paint, or nail polish.

 

Step 1: Clean and dry your plastic bottle

A bottle of any size is fine, as long as it is clean. Don’t use plastic milk bottles because they’re not made of robust enough plastic, and it’s impossible to poke plastic into the hollow handles! Make sure your bottle is totally dry before starting, too, as any moisture or dirt can compromise it in future. Lastly, remove any labels. You’re ready to go!

ecobrick plastic bottle on shadowy background

If you are using your ecobricks for your own DIY project, it’s important to use the same bottle for each brick to optimise your project’s design and stability.

If you are creating ecobricks for a local project, check with project leaders in advance to see if a particular size or brand of bottle is required. But don’t go out and buy drinks in plastic bottles just to make ecobricks! It’s much better to collect the right bottles from others who routinely use them, or make bricks with bottles you already have. The aim of ecobricking is to consume less, not more.

Step 2: Collect your plastic – clean and dry!

As I mentioned above, ecobricking should be done in conjunction with actively reducing the amount of plastic you buy. It’s definitely not a reason (or an excuse) to just keep consuming plastic without thinking. Even if this means your first ecobrick takes 6 months to complete rather than 6 days, this principle is a really important one.

To make a really strong ecobrick, you need to make sure you’re using a mixture of soft and harder plastics. You also need to cut them into small pieces to enable them to fit into smaller gaps and be more compressed in your bottle. 

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the plastics that can go into your ecobrick:
  • Carrier bags, cling film, bread bags and other stretchy plastic.
  • Cellophane-type wrappers from packaging such as the plastic that is used to wrap cardboard beauty product boxes or boxes of crackers.
  • Biscuit packets, crisp packets and sweet wrappers (just make sure these are plastic, not paper)
  • Harder plastic such as food trays (including black microwaveable plastic trays), credit cards, flower pots and fruit punnets.
  • Packaging such as polystyrene, bubble wrap, plastic posting bags and packing peanuts (but make sure you’re not using the corn-based packing materials as these are designed to be composted or biodegrade!).
 
colourful 3d lettring spelling out the word

It’s worth noting that using too much lightweight plastic, like polystyrene, can stop you being able to get your ecobrick to the correct weight. Use this kind of plastic sparingly and spread it across multiple ecobricks if necessary. Remember to pop your bubble wrap before using so you don’t end up with lots of man-made air bubbles in your ecobrick!

The most important thing to remember when collecting plastic to add to your ecobrick is that it must be completely clean and completely dry. I know, I keep saying it, but it really is vital. Any dirt, food or moisture inside your ecobrick will eventually start to break down, releasing methane into your ecobrick. This potentially compromised its long-term strength and stability.

Step 3: Get your stick ready

You will need a stick which is long enough to reach the very bottom of your bottle, and strong enough that it can be used to push hard without it snapping. Your stick shouldn’t be sharp, or you could risk puncturing your bottle and having to start again.

I use the long handle of a wooden spoon, and some of my friends use garden canes. Just make sure it’s clean and dry, to avoid contaminating your ecobrick.

ecobrick stick ideas - jar containing kitchen utensils

Using something you already have around the house as your ecobricking stick is a great idea. We want to create ecobricks without having to buy or use additional resources.

Step 4: Choose a base colour

The circular design principle of ecobricks means that we need to be thinking ahead to its potential future uses before we even start ecobricking. Using soft, solid-coloured plastic in the bottom of your bottle allows it to be used to create designs and patterns in its intended project.

If you’re using the ecobrick in your own project, make sure the bottom colour you choose lends itself to the design you have selected.

Push the base plastic into the neck of your bottle, then use your stick to press it into the base of the bottle. Add more soft plastic on top and keep pushing down until you have between 1 and 2 cm of soft, compressed plastic in the base of your bottle.

Step 5: Get packing!

Now you have your base sorted, the real fun can start. Use scissors to snip your plastic into smaller pieces. Doing this means that you can push the plastic into small gaps in your bottle. This, in turn, makes reaching your ecobrick’s target weight easier, as you avoid creating air bubbles that can’t be filled.

Mix different plastics as you go along, to avoid weak spots and make sure every bit of space is packed tightly. Use your stick to prod your plastic into any gaps, and to compress and pack it down as tightly as possible. Your ecobrick is starting to take shape!

4 plastic bottles made into ecobricks against brick wall background

Photo credit: Dan Jackson

Step 6: Target weights

To ensure that your ecobrick is strong enough for use, there are some weight guidelines that must be followed. It’s a good idea to weigh your ecobrick periodically, to check you’re on track to hit your target weight.

The way you calculate the minimum density of your ecobrick is as follows:

The bottle’s volume in ml x 0.33 g = minimum weight

For example, a 1 litre bottle (1000 ml) would have a minimum weight of 330 g.

Underpacked ecobricks contain more air, which means they are more of a fire risk and are also more prone to becoming squashed or collapsing within your structure.

It’s also important not to overpack your bottle, so the guidelines are to avoid creating an ecobrick with a density of more than 0.7 g/ml. That would be 700g for a 1 litre bottle.

An overpacked ecobrick could rupture and also has a higher risk of the cap popping off. This potentially affects the structural integrity and safety of the project they’re used in. This is why it’s important to stay within density guidelines and make ecobricks you can be proud of!

When you’re done, weigh your ecobrick, using kitchen scales, to check it meets the minimum density, then you’re ready for the next stage!

Step 7: Check and cap your ecobrick and record its details

This is as crucial a step as making your ecobrick in the first place. Firstly, it’s important to make sure there is no plastic pressing up against the lid of your ecobrick. Plastic bottle caps aren’t as strong as the bottles themselves, so even a small amount of pressure on them will cause them to break over time. Best practice is to leave around 2 cm of space between your packed-down plastic and your ecobrick’s cap. Use a solid cap rather than a sports or flip-cap, for maximum strength.

Next is logging your ecobrick. The GEA runs an ecobrick logging system called GoBrik (there’s also an app). This enables you to log your ecobrick’s key attributes such as its weight, the date, and the project it’s intended for. You can also use a notebook or a spreadsheet if you’re collecting ecobricks for your own personal project. The advantage of using GoBrik is that each brick you create adds to the GEA’s tally of plastic that has been kept out of the biosphere. It also shows how much of a personal difference you have made!

Step 8: Label your ecobrick

As well as recording your ecobrick’s details in a logging system, you should record the same details on the bottle. Using enamel or oil-based paints or nail polish and a paintbrush is best to make sure the label stays put. Permanent markers rub off fairly easily and paper labels will break down over time. 

I’ve finished! What do I do with my ecobrick now?

If you’re accumulating ecobricks for your own project, you’ll need somewhere indoors to store them. If you can, stack them slightly off the ground, and covered to protect from dust and dirt.

If you’re contributing your ecobrick to a community project, stay in contact with the project leader, who will give you instructions on how to store or deliver your ecobrick.

Once you have collected enough ecobricks for your own project, it’s time to get creative. The GEA provides extensive guidelines on how to build with ecobricks across all kinds of applications. They cover the 5 basic principles of building with ecobricks to ensuring your creation is both beautiful and long-lasting!

Photo credits: ecobricks.org

Feeling inspired?

If you’re feeling ready to build your first ecobrick, please share your thoughts and design ideas with us below. Also, always remember to tag your projects on social media using #ailunacommunity for a chance to be featured.

 

 

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