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.