So You Want An Ecobrick Collection Point In Your City?

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | June 2018

There’s a hand made wooden box painted different shades of turquoise at 917 Don Juan Street.  It’s the collection point for Ecobrickers of Santa Fe and northern New Mexico.  We are a small two-person team, Upcycle Santa Fe, and we’ve been collecting Ecobricks from the Santa Fe community for years.  A popular question we receive from all sorts of acquaintances regards Ecobrick collection points beyond the one here at the Upcycle Santa Fe office.  We’ve been asked to set up collection points throughout our city, in all other 49 capitol cities throughout the US, and all throughout the northern parts of our home state of New Mexico.  Our team of two is thrilled by the enthusiasm, but we’ve got our hands pretty full supporting and operating our already existing projects.  So… I think it’s well beyond time to talk to you, yes YOU, you Ecobricking enthusiast, about starting an Ecobrick collection point in your city or town.  I double dog dare you to take this seriously!

First things first, engage your community.  Talk to people about Ecobricks.  Teach them how to make a prim and proper brick, and excite them for all the plastics they’re keeping out of their local landfill and water systems.  Most people don’t realize soft plastics – like plastic bags, cheese wrappers, or an energy bar wrapper – aren’t recyclable by industry standards.  The guilt of tossing single use soft plastics into the trash, or the deceiving recycle bin, after learning to Ecobrick is almost unbearable.  I speak from my own experience.  Convincing even just a couple people of the importance and environmental impact of stuffing Ecobricks will come easy for you.  Then those people tell a couple people, and a couple more people tell a couple more people, and next thing you know you really need an Ecobrick collection point.  Now is when your creativity and passion carry you.

The Upcycle Santa Fe Ecobrick drop-off collection box.

Create your collection point. It can be tricky placing a collection point on public property. This is why we created our collection point in front of our own home office address.  We live in the desert, so our collection point is primarily wind and sun proof.  You don’t want your Ecobricks blowing away, and you absolutely need to keep them out of the sun. Research of Ecobrick built structures has proven that photodegradation is the leading cause of deterioration of Ecobricks.  The sun will bake the plastic bottle; the sun will weaken it so much eventually the plastic bottle cracks, and the soft plastics inside the bottle are unfortunately set free.  This will happen a lot quicker than you’d expect. When it comes to the rain, waterproofing your collection point isn’t seriously necessary because people should be placing lid-sealed-tight Ecobricks into the bin. If they’re rained on, it won’t ruin a properly stuffed and sealed Ecobrick.

Create a storage space. You should accept the challenge up front that the collected Ecobricks will begin to pile up. It can be a little overwhelming, but remember how each and every brick is your community’s effort to keep plastics out of the landfill and water systems, and then you’ll be so stoked when the Ecobricks are piling up.  Storage space needs to be sun-proof, most importantly.  Again, don’t let your Ecobricks blow away, and a little rain won’t bother them.  Perhaps you have space in your garage, or a shed out back you aren’t properly using?  For us, we built an outdoor storage area comprised of large wooden bins which are covered on top with corrugated metal. Your community Ecobricks will continue to pile up until you are able to plan a building project with them. This will determine the size of the storage space you’ll need, depending on how quickly you’re able to turn over the collected bricks into a local building project.

Create building projects. There are building code restrictions when using Ecobricks in the United States.  Only structures under 120 square feet are allowed – for now. (We’re working on this part…) This means your options for building projects will be small, but that’s alright! We’ve built a number of outdoor benches, garden beds, dog houses, and courtyard walls with the Ecobricks we’ve collected.  The technique for building with Ecobricks is pretty standard, and informative tutorials can be found all over the internet. Did you know there are Ecobrick structures in Guatemala, Indonesia, South Africa, Costa Rica, the Philippines, and beyond?!  The information on building is out there, trust me. Contact us here at Upcycle Santa Fe anytime you have questions in our website’s About tab. You have a support system, friend!


As far as we know, Upcycle Santa Fe operates the one and only Ecobrick collection point in the entire United States.  That’s kind of cool, but no, not really cool at all. What would be way more cool and interesting is a network of Ecobrick collection points scattered throughout the nation. “What difference will one collection point really make?”, said an entire nation. The United States is one of the leading producers of plastic waste.  It’s time for us to step up to the plate and creatively take on some responsibility for the “waste” we generate.  By starting an Ecobrick collection point and building projects in your own city or town, you are tapping into a global network of outside-the-box thinkers and environmentally conscious peoples.  The connections you will make and opportunities that will arise will not disappoint!  So again, I double dog dare you to take this seriously.

Two Santa Fe Women Who Don’t Suck

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | May 2018

It always seems impossible until its done.  Some wise words from Nelson Mandela encouraging the underdog to go ahead and take on Goliath.  Creating positive social change often feels like taking on Goliath.  Who are we kidding… creating positive social change always feels like taking on Goliath.  You know what they say, all it takes is one person to make a change.  Well it just so happens that Spring of 2018 two Santa Fe women have individually challenged Goliath to a dual.  What is the challenge?  Single-use plastic straws.  Their environmental campaigns, independent of themselves, are burning the candle at both ends.  Amber Morningstar Byars and Emma Cohen started small and soon gathered mass attention.  Is the red carpet ready?  Everyone loves a good underdog story.

Amber Morningstar Byars is about to graduate from IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) with a BA in Indigenous Liberal Studies and an AFA in Studio Arts.  As president of ILSSO (Indigenous Liberal Studies Student Organization) not only is she on an admirable path to Law School, but she has been actively organizing a number of community work efforts for years.  Inspired by the Strawless in Seattle movement, organized by the nonprofit Lonely Whale, Amber declared her senior project the Strawless Santa Fe campaign.  If you’ve earned a degree or certificate specializing in a specific field of work, you’re all too familiar with requirements and projects that must be fulfilled in order to complete the coursework.  What is beautiful and inspiring about this senior project is Amber’s choice to have an impact with lasting affects on both the Santa Fe community and the overall health of the global environment.  This queen is passionately going well beyond her degree requirements.

Amber Morningstar Byars; strawless, of course!

Amber has made her Strawless agenda very clear to the city of Santa Fe, and she’s approached this campaign with a sustainable and inclusive plan.  She has been hard at work recruiting Santa Fe restaurant owners to sign a pledge which will end their single-use plastic straw shenanigans by the end of 2018.  The choice as to whether the restaurant bans straws altogether, or switches to an eco-friendly option, is up to the restaurant.  The restaurant industry is arguably the world’s leading example of unnecessary straw use.  Regardless of your drink order, or whether you prefer a straw to consume it or not, a straw is going to show up in your drink.  You may think, “Well just ask for ‘no straw’, whatever, no big deal.”  Go ahead, my friend.  Make that request and let me know how many times your server habitually serves your drink with a straw, anyway.  This isn’t an issue that speaks to servers in the restaurant industry, but rather an issue that speaks to the bad habits from society has as a whole.  The kind of bad habits we don’t really think about until sea turtles have plastic straws lodged in their nostrils, and community leaders begin to rally against the unnecessary waste.  Straws suck, literally.

Next on Amber’s agenda is to engage with the disabled community which depend on the use of straws.  Differing from the world of restaurants where plastic straws are unnecessarily flying all over the darn place, people within the disabled community have a functional purpose and need for straws.  Whatever policy changes occur from Strawless Santa Fe, it is a priority the disabled community will not be negatively affected.

Photo courtesy Strawless Santa Fe

Lastly, the agenda includes one of America’s most favorite ways of getting politically active, a petition.  The goal to acquire 1,000 signatures has been set.  The petition asks Santa Fe bars and restaurants to all-in-all stop offering plastic straws to their patrons, and switch to an eco-friendly option, instead.  There are staggering statistics of how many plastic straws we put into the waste stream.  In the U.S., alone, 500,000,000 single-use plastic straws are used every single day.  That’s enough straws to wrap around the Earth 2.5 times.  And please spare us with the, “…but I recycle my straw.”  Tossing straws into your curbside recycle bin is not an actual solution because the low density polyethylene you’re sucking your beverage through is not recyclable.  Learning about the environmental impact of single-use plastic straw waste is like a crash you can’t look away from.  The information can’t be unlearned once images of suffering sea life float in your memory.  Suddenly that latte doesn’t taste so good being sipped through that straw…

Photo courtesy Strawless Santa Fe

Feeling motivated?  Sign Amber’s petition, here.

Perhaps by now you’re feeling inspired to ditch the straw, but love sipping those frozen margaritas on the weekend?  Our second queen in action has a solution for you.  Emma Cohen grew up in Santa Fe and holds a Masters in Environmental Management from Harvard.  She’s been one of those ‘straw people’ for a while.  For years Emma has worked to end plastic waste in our oceans by mingling with organizations like Save the Mermaids, and she previously worked for LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) as a Pollution Prevention specialist.  In casual moments she’d order friends’ drinks with no straws, regularly.  After years of raising awareness to plastic pollution, serendipity connected Emma to a person by the name of Miles Pepper.  This man shared the belief that straws suck, and something needed to be done to stop the unnecessary waste stream.  As Emma described their meeting, “Straw people unite!”  Together, the two of them have created FinalStraw, and are encouraging the world to Suck Responsibly.  Yes, it’s a reusable straw, but there is nothing basic about this product.  Trust me, you’ve totally never seen anything like this, before.

When asked what sparked her revolution against single-use straws, Emma detailed a 2010 trip to Thailand where she strolled the country’s renowned beaches and picked up handfuls of plastic straws that had washed up on the shore.  This became a daily routine, because every single morning the tide would wash ashore more and more plastic straws.  At that moment, Emma’s agenda was born.


Emma Cohen, FinalStraw

Emma and her business partner Miles launched a Kickstarter campaign for FinalStraw in mid-April of this year, and the response has been nothing short of amazing.  The success, so far, clearly proves people are beyond interested in an eco-friendly solution for straws.  Thousands of people have pre-ordered their FinalStraw via the Kickstarter campaign.  Should you choose to pre-order your own straw, you’ll receive bonus special early bird pricing… as though you needed more incentive to clean up the oceans.  (You’ve got until May 19th to get that pre-order in!)  How many straws will be spared from the oceans as people begin to use this fun, reusable solution?  Again, what seems like an impossible, super steep uphill battle is gaining traction.  The paradigm is shifting.

Want your own FinalStraw?  I don’t blame you!  Get one here.

The affects of this everyday, single-use item have really taken a toll on our planet’s ecosystems.  Have you ever thought about the work it would take to change the habits of billions of people on a global scale?  Seriously, just let your imagination sink into that idea for a few seconds.  It’s an overwhelming thought!  We live in a world where there is no shortage of social movements to get involved with, and there are many projects worldwide deserving of our attention.  It is easy to feel defeated because of this.  I asked Emma what advice she’d give to a person in this state, and she quickly summed up a plan of action, “Hone in to a specific part of your passion, and narrow the focus.  Start small, but make a big deal out of a small thing.”  This is the perspective Amber and Emma each have taken.  Driven from similar passions for a healthy and clean Mother Earth, they have created their own campaigns to battle single-use plastic straws.  Each of their projects is raising awareness, shifting the everyday habits of people and businesses, while having a lasting positive impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.  These women do not suck, so lets follow their lead.

Ubuntu-Blox Buildout at Finca Morpho

Written by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | March 2018

The roots of Upcycle Santa Fe’s creation are grounded overseas.  It was after many rewarding experiences abroad creating alternative plastic waste management systems/festivals/structures that our Founder, Jo Stodgel, returned to Santa Fe to bring home the Upcycle gospel.  After four years of focusing on our local community of Santa Fe through educational outreach and research projects, February 2018 we returned to the overseas adventures.  We found ourselves deep in the jungle, where paved roads end and dusty paths guide you to a permaculture farm, down on the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.

About a year earlier Upcycle Santa Fe became acquainted with a couple of people living in the intentional community (and permaculture wonderland) of Finca Morpho.  Located in Costa Rica, our contact with those at Finca Morpho was limited, but they sought out Upcycle Santa Fe with an interest to build their own Ubuntu-Blox Press.  We provided as much digital information we had at the time, and wished them luck with the build.  It has been exciting to receive inquiries from communities overseas regarding Ubuntu-Blox!  We were curious as to what was going on down there at the Finca.  What were they upcycling?  Was the press built and complete?  Were they building structures?  And to top it all off we had one of those, “Come visit us any time!” outstanding invitations… So fast forward to February 2018, and we’re on a plane heading to Central America.

Within 30 minutes of arriving and touring Finca Morpho we decided we were going to build the community an upgraded, top-notch Ubuntu-Blox Press.  It was clear that the prototype they’d built the year before wasn’t quite cutting it, and we knew building a fresh new press wouldn’t go unnoticed in this group.  Finca Morpho is located deep in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica; a peninsula that is majority national park and wildlife refuge.  This is because the Osa Peninsula is the second most biodiverse place on the planet!  The plants, fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects thrive in this jungle.  Protecting this natural environment for the diverse wonderland that it naturally is, is important.  Because of the intense biodiversity of this place, plastic waste has the potential to do a great deal of damage to exquisite creatures of all sorts. That was definitely part of what inspired us so much to build the Press.

morning beach light
Sunrise golden hour on the beach

We soon found a rhythm to our days.  We’d awake with the sun each morning (for the first time for as long as either of us could remember!).  As soon as the sun rose the temperature would start to climb, but also local Howler monkeys would begin to chant in the treetops as the golden morning light would dance across the Golfo Dulce and into the luscious green jungle where we slept.  It was such a spectacular moment we didn’t dare sleep through it.  Oh, yes, the glorious Costa Rican coffee may have also had something to do with it.  Next came an 8:00 am breakfast with the community members and visiting travelers.  This was always a lovely moment to catch up with everyone in the community and hear about their projects for the day; surf sessions, plant harvesting, tea brewing, music recording, etc… There was always a beautiful moment happening in whichever corner of this jungle finca you chose to look within.

For us – team Upcycle Santa Fe – our corner of this jungle paradise was at the Resource Center.  A giant bamboo structure with a metal roof which sheltered the important stations for plastic separation, compost preparation, and storage of materials that had no immediate need, from the intense sunlight and intermittent rain storms.  We built the Ubuntu-Blox Press under this structure, intuitively knowing it wouldn’t need to travel anywhere else once completed.  We spent our first two days salvaging for materials throughout the Finca.  100% of the needed wood, screws, and tools were stored in some place or another on the farm.  We later purchased two hinges and a door knob from the hardware store, but the remainder of the Press was built entirely of reclaimed materials.  Morning work hours passed quickly as the hot and humid afternoon hours heavily approached.  Temperatures in the mid 90s during the afternoon lead to extra-long lunch breaks where we’d lay low and wait for the hottest part of the day to pass.  We continued our work in the early evening hours, and sometimes after sundown.

It took Jo and I 10 days to build the Press.  During that time we’d have visitors from the finca stop into the resource center filled with curiosity about what we were building, and especially how the whole thing worked.  After a few days I began to feel the wonder I imagine a magician must feel as they continually surprise people when they pull the rabbit out of the hat.  For me, sharing with people the knowledge I have about plastic upcycling – and the many cool ways to actually do it – never gets old.  Each time a visitor would approach us with questions, it was an opportunity to share and teach.  You just never know how each person will respond, nor the capable impact each person may have in this world once you share with them this information.  It felt like magic, and this spell continued for 10 amazing days.

As our final days on the finca approached, the Ubuntu-Blox Press was pieced together one bit at a time, and the beautiful machine finally emerged.  We announced to the community one evening at dinner that we had finished building the Press.  Cheers and applause erupted from the group, as so many of them had witnessed our building project from afar.  Along with our announcement of project completion, our intention was to make it clear to the core community members of Finca Morpho to meet us after lunch the following day to watch a demonstration on how to use the machine, and how to build structures with the Ubuntu-Blox.  We invited the community members to attend the demonstration the following afternoon, and also extended the invitation to all the additional individuals who were visiting the finca at that time (a personal transformation workshop happened to be taking place that week, Metamorphosis, which lead to an influx of people on the finca).

finca morpho-3
The beach at Finca Morpho

Our final day on the finca had come, and Jo and I were up early (like usual) to give a final test run with the newly built Press.  Of course, we had to make sure everything worked properly before the demonstration.  And much to our unsurprised minds, the machine worked perfectly!  That afternoon we gathered in the Resource Center and awaited the community members to join for the demo.  One by one each community member showed up, and then one by one each person on the finca for the completely separate Metamorphosis workshop also showed up to participate in the demonstration.  Jo and I looked at each other wide-eyed and excited to be sharing this information, this moment, with so many interested individuals from around the world.  We spoke, shared, and taught the community about Ubuntu-Blox, and again were met with cheers and applause once we concluded our presentation.  Listening to community members joke about who was going to get a wall built on their cabin first, and how they were going to build this n’ that… the moment was exciting, humbling, transformative, and exceeded any expectations we could’ve possibly attempted to have in such a magical community.

So now what?  Upcycle Santa Fe has, in one aspect, gone full circle, returning to its international inspirations.  With this project we were reminded of the many communities around the world with an already existing interest in building with alternative materials.  These same communities commonly have an issue of plastic crisis and/or housing crisis.  This is how something like an Ubuntu-Blox Press is a two-birds-with-one-stone solution.  Intrigued by the wonder of traveling to new places, and inspired by the great impact made with just one small project, we are again committed to international projects.  Our plan is to generate at least one international Ubuntu-Blox Press buildout each year.  Imagining the difference our small team of two can make on this planet by continuing these adventurous work projects fills our hearts with joy.  In summation, we are so proud to announce this annual international project, and we’re really looking forward to planning our next Ubuntu-Blox Press buildout somewhere else in the world.

Ubuntu-Blox buildout demonstration with the Finca Morpho community

The Lab Results Are In… Get Excited

Witten by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe | January 2017

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that…” is a popular phrase many identify with in a world of varied interests.  We’ve all got that something in our lives, whether it be a fitness routine or an invention, that keeps others asking the same question (or making the same comment) over and over.  For us at Upcycle Santa Fe our ‘if I had a dollar for’ question is, “Don’t ecobricks off-gas?  They’re made of plastic… so aren’t they unsafe as a building material?” Sometimes we respond to this with questions of our own, such as “Are you wearing plastic (polyester) on your skin right now?” or “How many times every day do you touch plastic to your mouth or unwrap food to eat that is wrapped in plastic?” For us, these seem to be more serious health concerns than living in a well-built home with upcycled plastic insulation in the walls.

jo-1-high-resThe emissions question remains though, or at least it did before our first research experiment with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).   After a year of planning, fundraising, building, testing, and finally reviewing, Upcycle Santa Fe has received some answers to the questions of off-gassing and emissions. Upcycle Santa Fe was a 2016 recipient of a research grant through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program.  We knew right away we needed to use this funding to benefit our inquisitive supporters and partners worldwide.  There was a Doubting Thomas that needed our attention, and we hope you’re paying attention now!  With funding assistance through NMSBA, Upcycle Santa Fe worked alongside LANL to get these tough questions answered, and much to our enjoyment (and also relief!) the lab results are in and favorable to the continued usage of plastic waste as an alternative insulation material.

14102136_653820084767497_5279145463529160852_nLets get straight to it – “LANL advises Upcycle Santa Fe that with the techniques used, there are no observable emissions from the recycled [& upcycled] insulating materials under the conditions measured” (p 7, “Recommendations”, NMBSA Project Report)In total, 5 upcycled insulation materials were tested alongside 2 recycled types of insulation and 3 conventional types of insulation that are commonly available in building stores. The final report concluded that along with the conventional types of insulation, the recycled insulation materials and alternative plastic waste insulation materials do not emit harmful chemicals, or off-gas.  Note that these tests were not performed in extreme temperatures, and that revising this testing under extreme temperature may conclude different results, or as LANL states, “LANL cannot rule out the possibility that degassing or off-gassing may occur under different conditions than those encountered during the sampling period, e.g. higher temperatures.”  (p 7, “Recommendations”, NMBSA Project Report)

testing-2There you have it, folks.  Confidently move forward with stuffing those ecobricks and using them in building projects because this good news actually goes a little further.  Of the 12 insulation test subjects submitted for this research ecobricks and mixed plastic bags performed on par, and in some cases better than conventional and recycled insulation material (i.e.: recycled PET #1, recycled denim, R-Tech foam, and fiberglass batt) when it comes to R-value.  What on Earth is R-value?  It’s the measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness of material.  The higher the R-value, the greater the resistance, or in other words, the insulation actually works to keep your structure warm in the cold, and cool in the hot.  Rigid fiberglass, ecobricks, and mixed plastic bags were the top three performers in R-value, respectively.  Coming in closely behind were recycled PET #1, carton ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  So breathe easy, literally.  The alternative insulation materials you’ve been building with, or are planning to build with, should work as ideally as conventional insulation at a fraction of the cost, and not at the expense of your local landfill or beach.

Knowledge is power!  Empower yourself and your community with these lab results.  Encourage your community to begin, or continue, building structures using plastic waste as a safe and reliable alternative insulation material. Oceanographers believe there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in Earth’s oceans.  Americans, alone, are sending 121 million tons of waste to landfills each year.  Please let that sink in, and we’ll be right back.

Click here to view the full report from LANL


Upcycling the Plastic Waste Dilemma

Upcycling The Plastic Waste Dilemma by Joseph Stodgel. Originally printed in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Santa Fe Reporter for the April, 2015 Earth Day insert.

Since its invention and widespread production, plastic has enabled huge leaps in technological and industrial innovation and has in no small part ushered in the modern world as we know it. At the same time, plastic has become a massive and widespread environmental and health problem.

W&B 21

Plastic, as a valuable piece of the human technological cycle, has for the most part leaked into biological cycles. In the ecosystems of the world, plastic is a hazardous material that harbors environmental toxins. In the light of the sun, and the salt of the ocean, plastic breaks apart slowly into microscopic particles that are all the more toxic due to their easy ingestion.

Plastic of all kinds disrupts endocrine function and mimics estrogen, and thus holds the potential to wreak widespread reproductive havoc on biological systems. To put it simply, plastic does not belong in the biosphere, and it is imperative that it is kept within human technological cycles. What can be done to accomplish this?

First and foremost, products must be designed to be easily integrated back into either biological or technological cycles. Secondly, businesses of all kinds that produce or sell plastic components and packaging must take responsibility for and encourage the proper return and reuse / upcycling of their plastics. Thirdly, towns and communities must set up simple initiatives to responsibly deal with plastic waste in a local context.

This brings us to the difference between downcycling and upcycling. We have been taught to believe that recycling is the best thing that we can do with plastic waste, but what really happens when a plastic bottle is “recycled”? It is shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles around the world, broken down and processed in a number of factories to become a product of lesser value and range of use, and then again is shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles to be sold again. This is downcycling – it takes materials of one value and downgrades them at the expense of the environment.

Ecobrick Doghouse

Upcycling, on the other hand, takes materials of one value and upgrades them for the benefit of society and the protection of the biosphere. A simple example of this is an ecobrick – a plastic bottle used not only to contain and compress common plastic waste, but to build creative structures as well. In Guatemala, where the practice of making and building with ecobricks first took hold, upwards of 200 structures (most of them schools) have been built using these upcycled plastic vessels stuffed with “trash”.

Choose intelligent, holistic design, demand extended corporate responsibility, and start upcycling your plastic waste today.