Building a Plan for Plastic

I wrote this article for the local publication Green Fire Times for their Nov/Dec issue in 2021. I am reprinting it here to have it in an easier to read format, provide some links where appropriate, and also to add in some extra photos that didn’t make it to print. The online copy of the Green Fire Times issue can be found here and the article is on the 30th page. Enjoy! – Jo Stodgel

My first experience of the enormity of waste issues was a trip I took as a child with my dad to the old Buckman Landfill in Santa Fe. Back then the tractors would work side by side with pickups and cars, crunching old cabinets and couches into heaps of household waste and all that had been designated irredeemable. I was shocked by the devastation and amount of stuff being thrown away. Years later in high school I traveled abroad for the first time with the Santa Fe-based Bali Art Project and got to see what waste management looks like in most of the world. After a long journey that included a couple of flights and a winding late-night bus ride, we arrived in the picturesque village of Ubud high up in the hills.

What waste management looks like in many parts of the world.

We awoke in our bungalows the next morning to explore the surrounding lush jungle teeming with life and yet something was off. The small creek behind our spot served as the hotel’s dumpsite and was filled to the banks with all sorts of waste materials, especially plastics. I quickly learned that here in this place there was little to no centralized waste management and that people disposed of their trash in whatever ways they could: throwing it behind the back wall or sweeping it up into piles and setting it alight. To this day when I talk with other students of the Project they agree that the smell of burning trash sets off memories that bring them right back to Bali.

As a university student I was fortunate enough to study abroad for a couple of years, and this is when I really brought my focus to waste management issues and plastics in particular. I was inspired by projects such as the Earthship Community near Taos, where all sorts of waste materials have been repurposed into beautiful structures. In Scotland at the Findhorn Foundation I built a small lighthouse structure in a garden there using found materials and wrote a paper called the Appreciation of Plastic. Later when it was time to choose a focus for my dissertation at Schumacher College in England, I again decided to focus on plastic. This time I had a new ally in the work; I had just learned about Ecobricks from an acquaintance who did a beach cleanup project on Gili Air off the coast of Bali.

The author with a tiny Ecobrick. Photo Credit: Jenn Richter

Ecobricks are simply clean and dry plastic bottles, densely stuffed full of smaller plastics such as bags, wrappers and cut up clam-shell packaging. They can be stacked horizontally in masonry applications or can be stacked vertically as an alternative wall-filler or insulation material. They originally took off in Guatemala around 2005 and many schools and structures have been built there. Today there are many Ecobrick projects around the world. In 2012 for my dissertation work, I traveled to South Africa to engage the community of Greyton with this revolutionary idea. We ended up starting the Trash to Treasure Festival on the edge of the local dumpsite, where all the infrastructure was built with reclaimed and waste materials. The Festival ran for three great years and the locals continue to make and build with Ecobricks.

Constructing the Ecobrick round house at the open dumpsite near Greyton, South Africa 2014

I started Upcycle Santa Fe in 2014 to create a local Ecobrick project. I set up a collection point, spread the word and began building things with Ecobricks. That same year I met the inventor of the Ubuntu-Blox building system, Harvey Lacey. He is a welder by trade and invented a metal hand-powered press to turn Styrofoam into construction bales in response to the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti. With his assistance, Upcycle Santa Fe built a new type of press out of reclaimed wood. This press uses a simple lever system to compress plastic bags full of Styrofoam or other plastics into compact bales tied with string. Our first project was to build a wall out of these compressed Styrofoam bales in the village of Agua Fria.

A wooden Ubuntu-Blox press with a freshly made plastic bale

Ubuntu-Blox are a game-changer in the quest to repurpose and utilize waste plastics. Although originally made exclusively with bagged Styrofoam, we quickly discovered that they can be made using hard and soft plastics too, such as clamshell packaging and plastic film. Because of their size and versatility, they offer a more efficient way than Ecobricks to deal with a high volume of plastic, and thus are better suited for community scale projects. Over the years we have built several Ubuntu-Blox presses and a few structures using Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox. We have conducted short courses at local schools, and have completed research with LANL concerning the safety and efficacy of these new building materials. Based on the research we have found that compressed plastic is a fantastic insulation material.

Constructing an Ubuntu-Blox shed north of Santa Fe

Right now we are building a new Ubuntu-Blox structure. Over the course of four years we piloted a collection service for local businesses where once a month we would get paid to pick up clean and dry plastics. These plastics have been compressed into Ubuntu-Blox and will form the walls for a toolshed north of Santa Fe. This structure is the first of its kind in the USA and will contain roughly 546 cubic feet or 1500 pounds of compressed plastic that was otherwise headed to landfill. We are documenting the process of construction and will soon be compiling a series of videos detailing the steps. Links to these and other resources can be found on our website.

In other news, we are currently rebranding Upcycle Santa Fe into Plan 4 Plastic with the intention to reach a wider audience. Education has always been the main focus for us and we are excited to help more people create projects in their own communities. These solutions are open-source, not patented, and can be adapted to different contexts. We have provided guidance to several national and international projects to start Ecobrick and Ubuntu-Blox projects, and have built Ubuntu-Blox presses in Utah and Costa Rica. We believe that all communities should be empowered and have the tools to do something positive with plastic. I invite you to learn more about this important work and join the movement.

Have You Been Green Washed? Breaking Down Biodegradable & Compostable Plastics

Written by Hallie Brennan, UPCYCLE SANTA FE | FEBRUARY 2019

You’ve probably heard the term ‘green washed’ by now, and have likely witnessed it firsthand.  There isn’t enough bad-mouthing to be said about this marketing pandemic, as it gaslights sustainability efforts when Earth needs our care most.  For those of you who haven’t heard of green washing, let’s start with a simple definition.  Aka ‘green sheen’, green washing is a marketing strategy to deceive you, the consumer, in thinking a company, venue, or restaurant is green, but when examined just a little closer the company is in fact harming the environment.  As a result, the consumer gets duped into spending their hard earned cash on an undeserving fake green company.

Have you ordered a to-go coffee drink lately and noticed your cup has a little green leaf stamped on it?  Maybe the words biodegradeable or compostable are also written on the cup, and you say to yourself, ‘What a wonderful world!’ then finish the drink and toss the cup in the trash, because that’s where it’ll just biodegrade or something.  If this sounds familiar you’ve been green washed.

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Ask if the restaurant is participating in a commercial compost program.  If they’re not, you’ve been green washed.

As inundated as we are with single-use plastics, many people are hoping for more Greenified single-use items.  (Hint: Doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron?)  Most of these newly developed “green” single-use plastics are only green if you dispose of them properly.  I hope you find this as interesting as I do because I am about to launch right in…

Biodegradable and compostable plastics are turning up everywhere.  There are huge differences between the two.  Biodegradable plastics are usually just basic plastic products which have microorganisms added to help break down the plastic way faster.  The idea is the plastic will deteriorate in a few years rather than a few hundred years.  This seems like a legitimate fix to plastics building up on the planet, right?  Here’s the catch… when biodegradable plastics break down toxic residue is often left behind because the material is still just plastic.  Additionally, when those plastics do break down they don’t just disappear.  They become micro-plastics, and those are extremely harmful to ecosystems.  Micro-plastics are practically invisible which makes them nearly impossible to clean up, and they eventually end up in the bellies of wildlife and humans.  Lets also not forget the grandfather of the plastic problem is Big Oil.  Plastic is a petroleum based product; biodegradable plastic is, too.  They’re still drilling oil so that single-use fork can feed you.  Plastics degrade alright, but there’s nothing bio, or biological, about it.  It’s an unnatural object with an unnatural degradation process, and mass producing these biodegradable plastics isn’t getting to the root of the plastic pollution issue.

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Not a plastic cup, but we still need to dispose of it with attentive care.


Compostable products are made of natural plant starch, like corn or tapioca.  Compostable products break down in a composting system when done so correctly.  If you throw your compostable items in the trash and are thinking, ‘Yay!  It’ll just break down in the landfill…” you’re missing a big part of the picture.  To organically compost an item you need oxygen, or an aerobic environment.  Landfills are anaerobic environments, which means there is no oxygen to break down the compostable material.  This is why proper compost piles have to be turned and hydrated.  When compostables (food waste included) end up in landfills they break down alright, but release methane gas in the years-long process.  The gas is sourced from the landfill and burned, which is a direct green house gas.  Methane gas is 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat within our atmosphere.

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Methane gas burning at a landfill, directly contributing to green house gas emissions.

Compostable plastics means you’ve got to actually compost the plastic.  Have you ever thrown a compostable fork in your compost pile, then when you turn the pile months later you find the fork is intact and hasn’t started to break down whatsoever?  I have learned my lesson this way, as well.  Part two of compostable plastics is the need for commercial composting.  It’s a bit different than backyard composting.  Because the compostable plastic is still just plastic, it is not going to break down as quickly and easily as a banana peel.  Compostable plastics need to be managed in a controlled environment where microbes are being fed at just the right amount, and at just the right temperature, with just the right amount of water and nitrogen, in order to break down.  Who can possibly pull all that off?  Commercial composting facilities.

Compostable plastics in your backyard compost will take over a year to break down, and leave plastic bits behind, contaminating your soil.  If the item is tossed in the recycle bin it’s considered a contaminate and goes to the landfill, because it’s not 100% polyethylene like recyclable plastics.  In the landfill, compostable plastics take years to break down and eventually turn into methane gas.  Here’s the green wash; people perceive compostable plastic as a sustainable option without being informed to the importance of properly composting the item once finished with it.  When faced with limited composting facilities to responsibly handle the item it can turn out just as bad as regular old plastic.

Solutions do exist for compostable plastics, but you’ve likely got to do a little work.  If compost collection isn’t offered by your city’s waste management program, or by the venue that’s served you a compostable plastic item, consumers must take the lead.  Upcycle Santa Fe is located in northern New Mexico and can recommend Soilutions in Albuquerque and Reunity Resources in Santa Fe to responsibly handle your compostable waste.  (If you’re not composting your food waste at home, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is to not throw your food waste into the landfill.  Commercial composters can really help you out, here!)  A quick online search can help you find a certified commercial composting facility in your hometown.  If you’re an Ecobricker, or are able to make Ubuntu-Blox, biodegradable and compostable plastics can be used in both methods.  This is because neither Ecobricks or Ubuntu-Blox offer the right environment for such plastics to break down.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics can be stuffed into your Ecobrick

When it comes down to it, sustainable, green, and single-use aren’t usually found in the same family tree.  Green leaves or happy trees on packaging gives consumers’ quick-to-judge eye the impression a product is a sustainable choice.  The importance of bringing your own to-go coffee mug to the cafe, or reusing utensils for parties or car camping, are far more sustainable options.  Though innovative single-use items keep popping up on store shelves, the method of ‘bring your own’ and reuse still reigns.  Using anything once and throwing it away is the opposite of what sustainability teaches us.

As consumers we are a leading cause of climate change.  Yes, we may accurately place quite a bit of blame on corporations polluting ecosystems and destroying simple ways of life around the world, but we must remember corporations serve a very large, very powerful group.  A group which has an incredible impact on global economics, politics, government policy, and the overall planet: consumers.  If we want to change the dirty ways of corporations we must change our dirty ways of consuming, as well.  If we cannot see we are part of the problem we cannot fix the problem.  The responsibility of cleaning up the planet is in all of our hands.  We may sit and wait for corporations to do their part, or we may go ahead and get a head start.  Being informed to green washing tactics makes us better consumers because it challenges irresponsible corporations and keeps the sustainability movement in line.


Refuse, reduce, reuse, refill, recycle.


Reflecting on 2018, a Year-End Review with Upcycle Santa Fe


The year has wound down to the very final day of 2018.  It’s New Years Eve!  As I sit and contemplate my evening party plans I’m more-so distracted by thoughts reflecting on Upcycle Santa Fe’s progress in 2018.  This year we placed more Ubuntu Blox Presses in the hands of motivated individuals than ever before, which led us to do a bit of travel, and share our knowledge with many different groups of people.  Heck, this year we were even on TV and the radio!  Sit with me… let us reminisce.

Jumping back to February, 2018, Upcycle Santa Fe was en route to Costa Rica!  Happenstance led us to a group of individuals who are collectively living in a permaculture paradise deep into the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.  The place is called Finca Morpho, and the Morphians welcomed Upcycle Santa Fe with a place to sleep and daily organic, fresh cooked meals for the price of an Ubuntu-Blox Press.

We scoured their farm and were able to source all of the needed materials for the Press.  This was the first time we built a Press from 100% reclaimed materials!  This was a challenge for us, and we’re proud to have prevailed.  This paradise-based intentional community is now on a zero plastic waste agenda, and being located in the second most bio-diverse place on the planet, we think that’s pretty darn important.  You can visit this Ubuntu-Blox Press and the Morphians if you’re seeking a sustainable and meaningful tropical getaway.  They’ve got their annual Metamorphosis Gathering coming up soon, and it just may be the perfect thing you’re searching for.

Ubuntu-Blox buildout demonstration with the Finca Morpho community

Aw, gee whiz… thinking back on the day we left Finca Morpho, project complete, I was so overjoyed I cried.  Working in the field of plastic waste, tears of joy aren’t as common as tears of sadness.  I’ll forever be grateful to the love of trash regeneration the Morphians have, and am so happy to have met such a unique team of friends.

Okay, drying my eyes, now lets move on to the second project Upcycle took on in 2018, marathon races!  Did we run a marathon for plastic waste awareness?  Haha!  No way!  But we did help a marathon race company, Vacation Races, take on a zero plastic waste agenda; a different kind of marathon in its own right.

In April of 2018, Upcycle packed up and hit the road for Zion National Park, the hosting grounds for a weekend Ragnar Relay Race, and home of the first ever zero plastic waste marathon event in the United States.  Upcycle Santa Fe traveled deep into the glorious Utah desert to deliver the custom ordered Ubuntu-Blox Press to Vacation Races, and trained their waste management team on how to use the Press for plastic waste generated at regular marathon events.


A single waste management team tackled the waste of nearly 5,000 marathon goers!  Needless to say, by the end of the weekend we were exhausted.  There was quite a bit of bottled water and sports drinks consumed by the marathon goers, and we were able to compress 25.5 Ubuntu-Blox, or 102 cubic feet of plastic waste.  That’s quite a bit of plastics saved from failed recycling centers and landfills.

The waste management team of Vacation Races has carried on for the remainder of 2018 compressing plastics into Ubuntu-Blox.  Recent talks with their team have us on the radar for 2019, assisting with an Ubuntu-Blox building project to resource all the collected and compressed plastics into a structure.  Stay tuned to hear more about that one!

Moving on down to November, 2018, Upcycle Santa Fe got Santa Fe-mous and were in the news!  A reporter with Albuquerque based KRQE News 13 got wind of the work we do here at Upcycle, and by that evening we were on the local news.  Our social media accounts have soared as many New Mexicans have reached out to us since the news broadcast aired.  Many had questions about what to do with their non-recyclable plastics, the recycling crisis in New Mexico, and how to make Ecobricks.  To witness fellow New Mexicans have such an interest and passion for plastic waste and how to sustainably handle it has been humbling and motivating.  We feel we have a strong team of locals supporting our work, and not too much is better than that!  We love you, New Mexico.  If you haven’t seen us on the news yet, or already have and want to watch it again, here ya go!


One of the ongoing projects of Upcycle Santa Fe is research.  Being innovators in upcycling plastic waste into building materials, we are constantly faced with unanswered questions.  Research is an ongoing solution to ensure the development of sustainable products going into the future.  And well, formal research just ain’t cheap!  In 2017 we fundraised to afford necessary research on upcycled plastic waste insulation emissions.  We passed that test by answering the question as to whether or not plastics off-gas when used as insulation.  (The answer was no, they don’t off-gas, in case you didn’t read about that totally awesome research project.) In 2018 we’re fundraising again, and we would love your help.

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2018 brought on more research, and this time in one of the most important factors we’ve yet tackled, building codes! At this time, Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox are not up to building code for full-size structures in the U.S. because they lack some important research: R-Value and Flame Spread tests.  Both tests are required by law in getting new materials approved by building advisory boards, and eventually into official building codes.  So, whatdoyaknow, Upcycle is taking on this challenge!  Why?  Because we believe the people of the U.S. have a big role to play when it comes to decreasing their carbon footprint based in plastic waste.  Americans are consuming single-use plastics at an alarming rate, and our solution to ship plastic waste overseas for recycling has proven to be a failure over and over again.  Especially this year, with China’s foreign plastic waste ban, and the ripple effect its had on the entire global recycling industry.  So, again, would you like to make a donation and help us out on this enormously big project we’re taking on?


Our last project of 2018 brought us back to sunny Utah.  Just a couple weeks ago, in mid-December, we spent eight days in Moab building an Ubuntu-Blox Press for a handful of interested non-profits who seek to clean up Moab’s piling plastic waste, as the community is seeing big failings from their local recycling facility.

Upcycle Santa Fe was the grant recipient, alongside Moab-based Resiliency Hub, of the 2018 Make A Difference Grant from WabiSabi Moab, a thrift store with a strong interest in making a positive difference in their community.  Upcycle built an Ubuntu-Blox Press for the Moab non-profit Resiliency Hub, taught members of their community how to use it, and ultimately how to build with it.  (It was a whirlwind of a week!)  The final result was a pile of plastic waste transformed into an outdoor bench at Moab’s community radio station, KZMU.  Which reminds me, KZMU generously hosted us on a number of their news reports that week.  There were a couple of short podcasts made.  Have a listen…


Wow!  Okay, that wraps up the highlights of 2018 for Upcycle Santa Fe.  Every single one of these projects has opened doors for future projects, which means we’re in for a very exciting 2019.  Thank you so much for believing in our grassroots work, and supporting Upcycle as we take this important work to the next level.  None of this would be possible without the generous support of friends, family, and complete strangers we meet along the way.  You know who you are, and I thank you.  For the rest of you we’re soon to meet in the coming New Year, I look forward to our shared time together, and am already grateful for you.  Together we’ll clean up this plastic polluted planet one little bit at a time.  Happy New Year, world!

There’s Another Research Project Happening, and Upcycle Santa Fe Needs Your Help


Taking on global plastic pollution is tough.  Challenging folks to awaken to their single-use plastic habits is no easy task, either.  Developing an innovative product which could save thousands of pounds of non-recyclable plastic waste from landfills and oceans, to be utilized by communities large and small, rich or poor, across the nation… now that is the toughest task, yet.

We are a company of many facets, and our mission is grand.  We’ve got a big idea and have been plotting its success for years.  Working with post-consumer plastic waste as building insulation has been tedious.  Many trial and errors with consultations and plannings have led us to take the next crucial steps forward.  Industry standards require some basic tests in order for newly-developed insulation materials to pass building codes.  This is what we seek to document in our work with Ubuntu-Blox an Ecobricks.  Two research-based tests must be fulfilled.  The first, an R-Value test, or insulation quality.  How does the plastic waste insulation keep houses warm in the cold, and cool in the hot?  The second is a Flame Spread test.  In the unfortunate case of a fire, how quickly do plastic waste insulation products burn?


Another difficult task of taking on global plastic pollution and challenging single-use plastic habits is asking for help, specifically financial help.  We’ve located a facility to perform the required tests, and we’ve received a quote for the needed research.  The R-Value and Flame Spread tests together are $7,000, and our grassroots startup simply doesn’t have the needed funds.  We’re asking for your help because we really believe we have a solution to non-recyclable plastic waste!  Did you know Ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox have already passed some very impressive tests?  Last year, both passed an emissions test conducted by Los Alamos National Laboratory, showing plastics as insulation do not off-gas. (Scroll down to blog post “The Lab Results Are In… Get Excited” from January 2017)  Also, Ubuntu-Blox were originally designed to withstand serious seismic activity, and an Ubuntu-Blox structure passed an 8.0 earthquake test!

Like most grand, innovative ideas turned into reality we must start with community support and investment.  At this time, Upcycle Santa Fe is seeking support from you!  Yes, YOU, our environmentally conscious, Green-living friend.  You’ve already supported our work by stuffing Ecobricks and cutting back on the single-use plastics.  Now, will you donate to our Go Fund Me campaign and help us reach our goal of researching innovative plastic waste solutions?  Perhaps you may be interested in long-term, large scale investments in our company, as well.  We are pleased to announce now is the time to make that happen.  Should you be interested in investment opportunities we invite you to email our team at

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You can make a donation at

Our work was recently recognized and featured by Albuquerque-based KRQE News.  We think their journalists did a great job accurately capturing the work Upcycle Santa Fe has been focusing on.  You can watch the newscast in the video below.

Here at Upcycle Santa Fe, our mission goes beyond awareness to single-use plastics and pollution.  It goes beyond teaching the youth sustainable practices to carry with them throughout life.  Beyond refusing a straw and bringing reusable bags to the grocery store.  With all of these conscious practices and community supporting us, Upcycle Santa Fe moves along a timeline to seriously impact global plastic pollution.  You’ve helped us make it this far, and together we can have a big impact on this plastic problem.




Recycle the Recycling Industry

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | September, 2018

The majority of United States based recycling firms still think it’s a good idea to ship our plastic waste overseas.  China banned foreign plastic waste imports in January of this year.  A short six months later Thailand did the exact same thing.  Vietnam is no longer issuing permits for foreign plastic waste imports. Taiwan is drafting regulations to restrict imports, as well.  What is going on, here?  Why don’t foreign countries want to accept our plastic waste?  Maybe it has something to do with toxic pollution, contaminated water streams, and environmental disaster.  Maybe this is why we don’t even accept our own plastic waste…

The U.S. sent 70 million pounds of plastic waste to Thailand, alone, in just three months!  Here’s a quote from The Nation, a Thai news outlet, “I have no doubt that the recycling of plastic waste and used electronic parts are profitable businesses at the moment.  Some business operators may make a lot of profit from the recycling industry, but what will the country gain from their prosperity when our environment becomes polluted and the people suffer?”  This very rational quote comes from the Natural Resources and Environment Minister, General Surasak Kanchanara.  Finally!  Someone is talking sense!

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Photo: Greenpeace International.  A neighborhood in Thailand suffering from plastic pollution.

Solutions for recycling post-consumer plastic waste generated in the United States need to happen in the United States.  There is a business model which ships these plastics overseas, as foreign markets purchase scrap plastic from U.S. suppliers, and then use the recycled plastic to affordably manufacture goods.  Those goods are often shipped right back over to the U.S.  How many election cycles have you been through witnessing the working class people of the U.S. demand jobs be brought back to the U.S., and stop being sent overseas?  How often have you heard workers in the U.S. demand more manufacturing jobs, and celebrate the factory goods, manufacturing culture that was once part of the American Dream?  If we recycle our own post-consumer plastic waste in our country, this affordable recycled plastic could then be supplied to domestic manufacturers, possibly rekindling the manufacturing industry once again.


Additionally, the U.S. has some of the strictest regulations on EPA approved manufacturing, especially when compared to other countries.  Rather than sending plastic waste to foreign countries where regulations can be less strict, creating potential environmental disasters, we keep the plastic waste in our own country where we’ll work to process plastics as environmentally friendly as possible.  Many of our nation’s industries get a little Greener as the years go by.  We have what it takes to do the right thing.

We live in a world where the manufacturing of goods isn’t going to cease to exist.  That same world generates a lot of single-use plastics which need responsible handling.  With open minds, lets keep the revenue generated from the recycling industry 100% domestic.  Lets take responsibility for our own generated waste, and promote domestic jobs through the manufacturing industry.  Lets recycle an outdated recycling industry.