Ever wondered what to do with those pesky bits of unrecyclable plastic so they don’t end up in landfill? EcoBrick them!
Ian Dommisse of EcoBrick Exchange gave me the scoop on what exactly EcoBricks are and how to make them. Here’s the lowdown:
What are EcoBricks?
Essentially, it’s a technology to replace traditional building bricks. EcoBricks are 2 liter plastic bottles stuffed with unrecyclable plastic. The concept was born in Guatemala after a major flood created an urgent need to rebuild houses. The bricks are not load bearing, so they need to sit as a fill within a concrete or steel structure, making them particularly well-suited for insulation purposes or for use in multi-storey structures.
Bright and cheerful, the bricks are used to make raised garden beds, benches, furniture and other structures such as play centres. A recent project includes the building of a Learn and Play Centre in Port Elizabeth – a collaborative (and super inspiring!) project which you can read about here.
How are they made? Once you have a stash of unrecyclable plastic — sweet wrappers, plastic bags, food packaging, foil, photos, cling wrap, polystyrene, toothpaste and cosmetic tubes, plastic straws, elastics, and small plastic toys (Stikeez!) — you’re good to go:
Clean the plastic and begin compressing it into a 2 liter coke (or other) bottle
Use a stick to pack each layer as tightly as you can; it needs to be firm. You shouldn’t be able to squish it with one hand, or more than around one tenth of its weight
It’s best to use bottles of the same size and to keep them out the sun
Once your brick/s are done, you can take them to one of the drop-off points around the country. Keep an eye on the EcoBrick Exchange website for a growing list, but for now, here’s where you can drop-off:
Cape Town – Montebello Design Centre (Newlands)
– Gugu S’thebe (Langa)
– Health Connection (Fish Hoek)
– The Daily Grinder (Simon’s Town)
– Foragers (Scarborough) Port Elizabeth – The Re-trade Project (Walmer) Johannesburg – Wecreate (Maboneng) Pretoria
– Mamelodi West Community Hall
Building communities EcoBricking is a novel way to reduce litter and divert waste from our toxic, heaving landfills, which are fast running out of airspace. But it doesn’t just have environmental benefits. EcoBrick Exchange, the NGO spearheading the technology, run various projects for government, schools, NGO’s and corporates, and most programmes have a job creation component built in. The response from across South Africa has been amazing; communities have been mobilised to get EcoBricking — protecting the environment and learning new skills in the process.
It’s an informal, untested technology so there’s been some red tape in getting projects off the ground – but its gaining momentum and EcoBrick Exchange are continually experimenting with new technologies (such as wobble blocks) and refining their various programmes.
Learn more and get involved!
To see some of the beautiful creations yourself you can visit the Guga S’thebe Arts and Cultural Centre in Langa, the site of many workshops and a storage facility for the bricks.
To hear about upcoming workshops and events, keep an eye on the EcoBrick Facebook page here.
And if you’d like to get your school involved or open up a drop off point please email the EcoBrick team at firstname.lastname@example.org with your idea in the subject line.
My Dad smoked when we were kids and I remember one birthday conspiring with my mom and sisters to get him his dream present, a carton of Camel Filter cigarettes. We were properly chuffed with ourselves. Looking at photos of our parties around the same time, I can’t help but chuckle at the bottles of coke strewn across the table.
These days smokers are pariahs who’ve been banished outdoors and few of us willingly ply our kids with sugar. There’ve been shifts in thinking and we’ve learnt a few lessons.
I imagine our own kids, when they’re adults, are going to be mind-blown by our frivolous attitude towards water. They’ll scarcely believe we watered our gardens and flushed our loos with precious drinking water. Or grew tropical plants in a Mediterranean climate. Perhaps the image of us cavorting in our pools will trigger the same smug disapproval we have when we imagine our mums smoking while pregnant or chauffeuring us sans carseats.
Cape Town is up shit creek after reportedly the worst drought in a century. Stage 4 water restrictions come into effect on 1st June and social media is in overdrive – with sobering official warnings, photos of our depleted dams, and countless water saving tips, much of it quite useful.
If there’s one upside of the drought it’s the conversations we’ve been forced to have, and the solutions we’ve had to implement. A mere 8 months ago, as a family, we were quite oblivious, and as a result careless, irrigating with Council water and luxuriating in regular baths. Now, it seems, there’s a new normal as people retrofit their homes and adapt to the water shortages.
But will it stick?
I wonder where we’ll be in say three to five years time, or after a few soggy winters. Reverted to our old ways with our immaculate lawns and sparkling swimming pools? Or will we have wisened up.
South Africa is a water scarce country, the 30th driest in the world. Our exploding population and changing weather patterns are putting huge strain on all our resources, not just our water.
Fan out further still, and it’s hard to ignore the impact of humanity’s demands on our straining little planet. The Water Project estimates that nearly 1 billion people on the planet do not have access to safe, clean water, yet for most of us reading this, contemplating life without water has an end-of-days feeling; it’s a very unsettling thought.
Can we even conceive of what will happen if we open the taps one day and they’ve run dry?
To tie in with Plastic Free July, we’re ramping up our efforts and challenging ourselves to ditch all single-use plastic for that month. Seems easy enough, right? I thought so too, until I started researching and making mental notes of all the things we’d have have to do without.
Plastic is so ubiquitous in our lives it’s easy to not notice it. But once you start paying attention it.is.everywhere.
The biggie for us is going to be packaging. We’ve done away with the plastic bags, bottles and straws but we’re still very much in supermarket mode. So there’s planning and prepping to be done; and this month I learnt a lesson about the importance of this. My weaning-off-plastic attempts were badly scuppered. I snuck off for a weekend away and both my boys are May babies, so let’s just say that some bad planning resulted in me falling off the wagon (there was even a plastic-wrapped-suitcase incident due to a broken zip:-(
But I’m back on track and my homework for the next few weeks is to get sussed on bulk shopping destinations and other non-packaged grocery options. And root out all those pesky bits of plastic that insert themselves into our lives.
Plastic-free kids birthday parties? That’s one to start planning now to get right next year!
I still chuckle when I think of my husband watching me tuck into a rack of ribs and remark, not unkindly, ‘Oh, how the mighty have fallen’. Heavily pregnant, I’d finally, and wholeheartedly, succumbed to the meat cravings I’d been having for the past decade.
I was a smug vegetarian, I think because I was conflicted about it. I believed (still do) vegetarianism to be an admirable (and increasingly necessary) choice, but eating meat made – still makes – me feel good. My ideals and my desires – couldn’t marry the two.
Some of the greatest thinkers of our time, men of science and of religion, rejected meat, usually on moral grounds. This inherent morality – where you can point to peoples’ compassion, or lack thereof, makes the flesh eating debate tricky territory to navigate as it invites judgement; it leaves space for right and wrong, kind and cruel, virtuous and evil. How can you be an evolved soul and still eat animals? Or be privy to how animals are farmed and not take a stance?
Even if you manage to manoeuvre your way round the cruelty, by just not thinking about it, as most of us do, our meat consumption is seriously bad news for the planet — something that’s harder to ignore with environmental issues so high on the agenda.
Those who’d espouse a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle have a powerful case. To skim the list of reasons to ditch meat:
Factory farming is pretty grim: cruelly confined spaces, growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, artificial fattening of animals, the heartbreaking mother-calf separation hours after birth.
Meat farming gobbles up resources. It’s estimated about 30% of our (ice-free) land is now used for meat production. Huge swathes of rainforest are being cleared to make space for livestock farming.
The cows themselves are huge polluters, releasing toxic methane into the environment.
One stat from Cowspiracy that’ll scream out at you: it takes more than 2000 litres of water to make one hamburger. I still can’t wrap my head around that stat; it’s so grossly disproportionate it almost defies belief.
My kids are complete carnivores, so it’ll be a while before we embrace vegetarianism. But it is time to cut back – way, way back. Abstinence didn’t work for me, I’d cave then beat myself up about it, so I’m trying a different approach. To flip things around so that meat is an occasional treat rather than a staple. And to be more mindful about where and what meat we buy – though just thinking about that minefield gives me a slight headache. Free range, organic, pasture fed, ethically sourced – what does it all mean, really?
Part of weaning off meat is having accessible, tasty vegetarian recipes up your sleeve. Check back soon for some of our favourites that can be made in a jiffy with minimal ingredients. Meantime the hunt for slightly more sophisticated, hearty vegetarian recipes continues; I know they’re out there. Anyone got great recipes to share?
Einstein; Pythagoras; Plutarch; Leonardo da Vinci; Leo Tolstoy; Gandhi; Charles Darwin; Voltaire; Jane Goodall; Pamela Anderson; Natalie Portman; Paul and Linda McCartney; Steve Jobs; Mike Tyson; Bill Clinton; Hitler*
(*The Nazis apparently introduced animal protection rights that still exist today; the fine for hurting an animal was two years. If that’s not a study in the complexity of morality and the human psyche!)
The detrimental impact of single-use plastic on our oceans seems to be gaining currency in the media — or maybe it’s been there a while and I haven’t been paying enough attention. The statistic that there’ll be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050 is still ringing in my ears.
If you’re mobilised into action by stats here are some to horrify you:
— This Guardian article on plastic in our foodchain
— This newly released documentary – A Plastic Planet
— The 5 Gyres Institute. The numbers are alarming – but thankfully balanced out with tons of tips on ways to take action and stem the tide (see ‘Take Action’).
If reading stats makes you glaze over, perhaps The Dude can convince you to start weaning off single-use plastics in this video on behalf of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
Confronting the issue head-on can be overwhelming so we’re tackling it in increments. We’ve ditched the plastic bags and bottles, and next on our hit list — straws. An endeavour that will, I’m sure, like much of our sustainability journey, happen in fits and starts. Still.
live in the sunshine
swim in the sea
drink the wild air
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m totally crushing on two powerhouses of the zero waste movement. Gorgeous beyond, twenty-something New Yorker Lauren Singer is the brainchild behind Trash is for Tossers. Uber stylish Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home is often dubbed the founder of the zero waste movement. She’s been living waste free with her family in LA since 2008.
Beyond the ridiculous amounts of cool they exude is a powerful message – our planet is in trouble and there is a whole lot we can do about it. Bea Johnson uses beetroot juice as lipstick. She’s that extreme. And while many of us are stuck on the 3R’s she’s expanded hers to 5 – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. On the sites of these two zero wasters you’ll find images of their years worth of waste in a single glass jar (that’s as much waste as I come back with after a kids birthday party!).
Much of what they (and other zero wasters for that matter) do and propose seems, at this juncture in my life, unattainable. But it’s good to have role models right? Every now and then, scrolling through their feeds, something sticks and small tweaks are made.
*Bea Johnson might be touring South Africa in May! Watch this space!
Composting, for us, is mostly about diverting waste from our alarmingly full, toxic landfills. Haphazard in our approach, we’re learning as we bumble along and don’t harvest a huge amount of compost – and when we do, it’s an added bonus on our journey of waste reduction.
Yesterday I attended the most inspiring workshop at Urban Farmstead, where I learnt that, just like baking, there’s a composting recipe you can follow. The workshop was facilitated by permaculturalist Saskia Schelling and herbalist Karen Parkin. Over a period of 6 years, Saskia has toiled tirelessly to transform her suburban garden into a thriving food forest. Passionate about sharing her hard-won knowledge, the workshop was practical, mucky and hands-on. We added layer upon layer of organic material to create the most awesome compost heap. Here’s how it went down and some of what I learnt:
That’s the very basic recipe, to be tweaked and adjusted to suit your needs and lifestyle. We tend to ‘cold compost’, adding bits of waste to a small bin which decomposes over a long time – months to a year. But if you’re a keen composter in Cape Town, looking to churn out beautiful compost quickly, get yourself to Urban Farmstead, to learn the best way – by doing.
It’s a small, seemingly insignificant thing but the absence of a machine or contraption whirring in the background to regulate the temperature or clean the air is one of the things I’ve loved most about moving back home.
In Beijing there was a constant hum in our apartment – of the air conditioner in summer, the heater in winter (who knew Beijing was sub-arctic) and the air purifier most of the year. Hong Kong was not much different (this is a city where department stores open their doors wide to pump cold air onto the hot sticky streets outside). In London it was the central heating for what felt like the better part of the year.
In Cape Town the air is beautifully clean and the temperature just so, so that you’re always comfortable, and it’s felt so good to be less of an energy guzzler. Moving home has coincided with a gradual awakening on my part – of a planet in peril as a result of our unrelenting quest for comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s having kids, maybe it’s middle age, maybe it’s having lived in such artificial city environments for close to a decade.
I do wonder though, if I moved back to any of those concrete jungles, would I just revert to my old ways? Crank up the aircon after a day in the insane stickiness that is Hong Kong? Or seal myself in my apartment, air purifier going full-tilt, after an afternoon breathing in the noxious Beijing air? What are the alternatives? Learn to be a little (or a lot) less comfortable?
I can feel smug about ditching the temperature control machines but I now live in a suburban house with a thirsty garden, and I haven’t used public transport in three years. I’ve swapped out one set of conveniences for another – if I did one of those carbon footprint calculations and compared life then to life now, I’m not sure I’ve progressed as much as I think.
It does feel though that once awareness has crept up on you, once it’s got your attention, it starts demanding more of you. What you know becomes compounded so that you’re forced to continually refine and adapt your thinking. You recycle furiously and feel great about keeping waste out of landfill, then investigate a little more and realise recycling is a sticking plaster, not a solution, and that what you actually need to do is stop accumulating. You become water-wise, flick those switches off and compost your food waste but then watch Cowspiracy and feel like you’ve had blinkers on all this time – gorging yourself on meat whereas in fact ditching meat could have a bigger impact that all your recycling efforts combined. You browse the sites of zero wasters displaying their entire years waste in a small glass jar – and then, feeling inadequacy creep in, you step away from the screen, go for a walk and get some perspective!
Learning is iterative and it’s hard to overhaul your life in a day, a week, a few months or even years. But you can always start and do what you can when and where you can, with the wherewithal you have at the time – and you can rejig things as you go along. And I think a journey of sustainability should be a joyful one – moments of outrage and maybe even exasperation at times yes, but ultimately something that brings you a semblance of peace in a crazy beautiful world.
“Little by little, one travels far”
– J.R.R Tolkien
Modern life is unimaginable without plastic. Lightweight and durable, it’s infinitely useful and is everywhere – in our homes and workplaces, our public spaces, our landfills, and – perhaps most disconcertingly – in our oceans. Estimates are that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish.
Plastic pollution has a devastating impact on marine eco-systems. Turtles, birds and other sea creatures mistake bags and other plastic debris for food and choke on it, are suffocated by it, or starve to death as they can’t digest it. Particularly insidious are microplastics – pieces smaller than 5mm in length – which are ingested by fish and ultimately find their way into our food.
Though a relatively small part of the problem (other single-use packaging is a much bigger contributer to pollution), shopping bags are a very visible reminder of our addiction to plastic. Estimates vary, but the figure bandied about is somewhere between 4 and 8 billion plastic bags produced annually in South Africa. The number itself is disconcerting, but what’s even more troubling is that the bags aren’t being widely recycled, they’re ending up in landfill.
What does the law say?
Plastic bag legislation was first introduced in South Africa in 2003. Government adopted a two-pronged approach. It enforced the manufacture of thicker bags to replace the flimsy ‘national flower’ that could be seen littering our landscape (it was also hoped the thicker bags would encourage re-use). And it introduced a plastic bag tariff, to discourage their use.
In 2004 a manufacturing levy of 4c (now 8c) was introduced – the money collected was meant to be used for the creation of buy-back centres and recycling facilities. Buyisa-e-Bag, a non-profit organisation, was set up to manage the process, but failed to fulfil it’s mandate and was wound up in 2011.
Controversy continues to swirl around the nearly R1.3 billion collected in levies since 2004. Representatives in the plastic industry say it’s become a green tax that goes straight into government coffers (the money is not ring-fenced, so the DEA has to apply to access the funds). Annabe Pretorius, an independent consultant in the industry, says “the plastics industry has approached the government for funds to help with recycling on various occasions, through different bodies, and so far we have got zero.”
Where are our bags ending up?
John Kieser, the Sustainability Manager for Plastics SA, explains that there is a market for post-consumer (used) plastic bags – they can be recycled into irrigation pipes or granulated and re-made into plastic bags or black bags. But the reality is, they aren’t being collected and recycled, because – quite simply – they’re not a high-value recycling item. He says “The reason you see all those bags flying about out there is because there is no demand for them.” Because they’re very light, it’s difficult to collect enough of them to get the tonnage required to make recycling them viable, he explains.
Steven Cheetham of Atlantic Recycling has been at the coalface of the plastics recycling industry for 30 years and also spoke about the low recycling rate of plastic bags. “Waste collectors don’t pick the plastic bags because recyclers aren’t buying them – there’s no weight in them. They’re also problematic to recycle. They’re very thin so tend to fold in the washing process, and they’re hard to dry.”
But the biggest problem, according to Cheetham, is the high percentage of calcium carbonate (essentially chalk) that’s added to the bags. “Virgin polymer is based on the oil price and when oil went to a hundred dollars the price of polymer shot through the roof. So to reduce the price of the end product – the bag – manufacturers put calcium carbonate in, which is half the price of virgin polymer. So it’s a huge saving to the manufacturer, and to the brand owner,” he explained.
Why is this cost-cutting a problem for recyclers such as Cheetham? He explains the science behind it. “We wash plastic and it floats because it’s got a 0.9 density, so any paper or sand or stone will sink. Anything with a density less than 1 will float. The minute you put calcium carbonate in, it goes over that and it doesn’t float anymore. It sinks to the bottom of our tank along with the mud – we have to throw it away, it goes to landfill. And we’ve paid for it, so it’s a loss to our company.”
He’s angered by what he calls ‘green washing’ on the part of retailers. It’s good for business to be perceived as green, so retailers print messages on the bags urging consumers to recycle them – despite the fact that the increasing levels of filler (and of ink) being added makes them hard to recycle.
Plastic bags – a money spinner?
Cheetham believes retailers are making money off the bags. “It’s their biggest selling single line item. They’ve got their spin doctors on it the whole time so the consumer doesn’t actually know what’s cooking.”
Retailers can charge what they want but the average price consumers pay for a bag is 50c. According to Pretorius, each bag costs 25c to make. On top of that, 8c goes towards the manufacturing levy. Who profits from the remaining 17c per bag is unclear. Retailers insist it’s a break-even situation with no clear profits for them.
Hayley McLellan, environmental campaigner and founder of ‘Rethink the Bag’ deals a lot with the major retailers and says “In terms of a plastic bag ban, retailers just want to know they’re not going to lose feet through the door due to a perceived inconvenience to the customer. They also want to know what the alternatives are; they are concerned it will cost them more. But in fact, retailers could have reusable bags made locally – benefitting both them and local communities. Win win and a win for the environment!”
Retailers do seem loathe to get rid of the bags. One said they’d need a clearer indication of how consumers would react and another believes it could have a chaotic outcome, because when trialled, they had strong push back from customers who demanded they be given a bag.
Which begs the question – where are we, the consumers, in all this? If the levy is being mismanaged, our bags aren’t being recycled and are clogging up our landfills and polluting our seas after their short trip home from the grocery store, shouldn’t we rethink them?
Assuming our leaders lack the political will to ban the bags, our retailers are too invested in them to make any changes and recycling them is fraught with challenges, is the onus not on individuals to do something? At which point, it’s time to fess up. I only recently stopped buying plastic bags. I’d bought the re-useable ones years ago but was quite lukewarm in my attempts and could never get into the habit of carrying them around with me. It just comes down to awareness. At some point, when the busyness of modern life subsides, you read a statistic or see an image that stays with you or spend a morning walking on an infuriatingly littered beach and you realise that if you’re part of the problem you can be part of the solution.
It’s not unlike the recent Stikeez scenario – people reacted strongly and lambasted Pick ‘n Pay for their irresponsibility. I don’t think we should let Pick ‘n Pay off the hook, but retailers are profit driven, and can we truly blame them for giving customers what they want? We’re the ones that create the demand by being complacent and giving in to our nagging kids. Likewise, if shoppers keep buying plastic shopping bags, we are condoning the norm of supplying them.
Stemming the tide
Dr Robertson-Andersson of the UKZN’s MACE lab has been studying the impact of microplastics on our oceans. As she points out, every piece of plastic dumped in our oceans still exists, it just eventually breaks down into micoplastics. She shared some alarming statistics on marine pollution – estimates are that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square km of ocean, or, put another way, over 3 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean.
But we can stem the tide. Here are a few small tweaks you can make that will help keep plastic debris out our oceans:
Use reusable shopping bags. Or re-use your plastic shopping bag as many times as possible.
Avoid or cut back on single-use packaging. Ditch the straws, steer clear of individually wrapped sweets and heavily-packaged groceries, invest in re-usable coffee cups and water bottles.
Use the power of your wallet. A growing problem are plastic micro-beads added to cosmetics. They get washed down the basin, into our rivers and ultimately, our oceans. Dr Robertson-Andersson says “South Africa has some of the best legislation in the world, we have to state what’s in every product. And because we do, as a consumer, we can choose whether to buy products that contain plastics or not. All you need to do is turn the product over and take a few seconds to read the ingredients.”
Just as you check snacks for ‘E’ ingredients, here’s a list of plastic-containing ingredients to look out for in toiletries and cosmetics:
What do you think? Should South Africa follow the lead of countries such as Rwanda and Bangladesh and ban the bag?
It’s a complex issue with many stakeholders, each with vested interests which they vehemently defend. Those who support a ban on the bag point to the environmental havoc they cause. Those who take a more moderate line argue that plastic recycling creates jobs and that the plastic bags are a valuable source of recyclate. And then there’s the delicate balancing act of ensuring we don’t replace one problem with another – some would argue for instance that paper bags have a higher carbon footprint than plastic ones.
It’s certainly an issue that can’t be dealt with in isolation – tackling it will be a huge collaborative effort. Until then, our part is to help keep them out our landfills and our oceans.
I love those gifs (or are they called memes?) that do the rounds on Facebook – about life in the eighties pre-technology when we rode our bikes everywhere, could only contact each other via landline, Pac Man was the only video game around and we never watched TV. A much simpler time, when we were told to make ourselves scarce or read a book if we were bored. Being scuttled off to OT, swimming lessons and pottery? Pah!
Incredible how things have changed in just one generation. Seems like right now, our kids, and us, have a lot more to worry about. Rhinos are nearly extinct. Our bee population is fast dwindling. By 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish. The ice caps are melting and the sea rising. We’re running out of water. The Indonesian forests are burning. We’re consuming so much our landfills are running out of airspace. The food we eat is toxic and laden with preservatives. We’re hyper-connected yet many of us are still lonely and isolated. And while some of us gorge ourselves on meat and junk food, many of us are still starving to death. The pressure on our kids to perform has reached new heights (I’m pretty sure we didn’t write exams in Std 4?!). Trump. Brexit. ISIS. Zuma.
It’s hugely overwhelming and can make you want to curl up in the foetal position or be an ostrich and bury your head. Ignorance is after all bliss. But once you know something, you can’t un-know it.
Something that has also helped, for me, is to start small. Baby steps. Pick one thing that resonates with you, however tiny, and start doing that thing. Stop buying straws; take your own bags to the supermarket; eat less meat; join a beach clean up; stop shopping; be more patient and present with your kids; give the guy at the traffic light the courtesy of eye contact and a smile. Start small and don’t beat yourself up when you forget to do it or slip up.
For me, stuff is a big thing. I can never resist a magazine, covet just about any coffee table book ever published, and have an embarrassing amount of jeans. But I often feel crushed by the weight of the rubble in our household – the wrapping paper, party favours, broken toys and kids paraphernalia, old gadgets and shoes from yesteryear. This year, I’m going to tackle the mountain of crap that threatens to bury me. It’ll be donated, repurposed or upcyled. I have much to learn about the most responsible way to dispose of stuff (what should we be doing with foil and food packaging that isn’t recyclable – find alternatives and stop using them altogether probably!).
This is the year we lighten the load and start making some tweaks. We’ll tweak and tweak until eventually the small habits become ingrained and effortless. In the same way that I’m now unable to throw food waste into the rubbish bin without a shudder, I’m hoping, eventually, that one day, sooner rather than later, every decision around accumulating is a conscious one, ever mindful of our responsibility to tread a little lighter. Number 1 on my hit list – packaging! Watch this space.