Published by Waste Planning

Developing countries that lack waste-management services are taking up the challenge themselves. Combining plastic bottles and packaging into ecobricks is a reuse concept that is becoming more popular.

Imagine the bin men are on strike. Forever. How long would it take for rats, cockroaches and other vermin to profit and start spreading disease? What would people do with no way of shifting the waste, and nowhere to shift it to?

This is the predicament facing some three billion people in the world. Without waste-management services, they have little option but to dump or burn waste in the open. The health risks make for a frightening read: vector-borne diseases such as Malaria and the dreaded Zika virus, gastrointestinal illnesses, respiratory and neurological diseases, skin conditions, blood disorders and cancers.

Uncollected waste poses other serious hazards. Blocked drainage systems increase flood risk, a particular danger in areas affected by severe weather. There are day-to-day losses too, as livestock die from eating indigestible waste, depriving farmers of food and income.

One often-cited solution is better governance and investment in public services, but where a government is unable or failing to provide the most basic of public services, what can communities do to reduce the awful impact of uncollected waste?

A simple idea

One woman in Guatemala found an eloquent solution to one aspect of this problem, and, thanks to social media, it is gaining traction across Latin America and south-east Asia. Plastic packaging, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and plastic-bottle litter is ubiquitous, particularly at tourism sites.

Since it never rots, this material lingers eternally, blocking drains, killing livestock, providing breeding grounds for mosquitos and polluting agricultural land and groundwater. So what to do? A simple but highly effective answer is to stuff plastic packaging inside a bottle, push it down with a stick, screw the lid back on and you have an ecobrick.

Ecobricks can be stacked in the cavity of a basic stud wall, with chicken wire on either side to hold them in place. Once rendered, the wall is indistinguishable from one built with traditional construction materials.

At a school in Cambodia, the founders encouraged local children to produce ecobricks by rewarding them with school materials, bottles of cooking oil and even bicycles. It worked: the school, called The HUSK school (pictured above), was built using 100,000 ecobricks and now has five or six buildings, including a library, staff room and classrooms, all constructed with ecobricks.

Not only do ecobricks offer excellent insulation and greater safety in earthquakes, the process of making them has also helped improve community awareness about plastic waste, the problems it can cause, and the benefits of containment.

Ecobricks are not what most people would consider a perfect solution. In an ideal world, we would not be generating this waste in the first place. In a slightly less than ideal world, we would still be generating waste, but it would all be collected for closed-loop recycling, preventing any “leakage” of discarded plastics into the environment.

Sadly that is not the world we live in. Recycling businesses may be coping, or even thriving, in some of the cities in the developing world. But in rural areas, where communities are small and transport is a major barrier to waste management, people need to find a way to deal with waste themselves.

Admittedly, ecobricking mixes different types of plastics, making them more difficult to separate for recycling further down the line. But some of this plastic has been sitting on hillsides, in valleys, on the shores of rivers, lakes and seas, for decades.

Unless it tumbles or leaches into the water, the plastic is not going away. In such cases, there remains an argument to “concentrate and contain” – the preferred replacement for the “dilute and disperse” approaches of old.

The material can also be recovered if its value shoots up at some point in the next 500 years, assuming building control has not restricted its use. From a waste hierarchy perspective, ecobricking conserves, re-uses and upcycles existing waste materials, so maybe it is not that far from the accepted best practice of integrated waste management after all.

As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has pointed out: “Sound waste management requires a high level of technology and a significant budget. What Japan and Germany can afford today, most countries will have to wait a long time for. Developed countries have a lot to learn from the recycling and re-use levels in developing countries.” The environmental, economic and health costs of unmanaged waste outweigh the costs of waste management by five to ten times, according the UNEP, which is a the UN’s global environmental authority, setting world-wide agendas and promoting coherent implementation of sustainable development.

While governments struggle to deliver adequate public services, people are taking up the challenge themselves. Ecobricks might not be for everyone, but it is easy to see why the idea is spreading.

Ecobricks: Advantages of this approach

  • Reduces contamination of the environment
  • Simple recycling technology, easily realisable and attainable around the world
  • Hygienic from being sealed with its own lid
  • Easily storable and transportable
  • Recycling technology that uses renewable human energy
  • All types of clean and soft plastic waste can be used, without needing to be classified
  • Saves waste transportation costs
  • Saves landfill space
  • Replaces dangerous jobs in rubbish dumps
  • Reduces emissions by replacing contaminating construction materials
  • Reduces transportation costs of conventional construction material
  • Excellent insulation
  • Safer in earthquakes