Here’s A Thrifty Way To Build A Home

Fast, no, but it does help the environment

Ecobricks are essentially a catch-all technical word for non-biodegradable building materials. They don’t break down, but they are still very ecologically friendly because it is a good long term use of materials that might otherwise be tossed in a landfill. Ecobricks enable virtually any plastic product to be turned into building blocks.

An ecobrick is a used plastic bottle packed solid with used plastic like bags, packing material, and straws to make a bottle shaped building block. Best of all, you don’t need any fancy special skills, engineers, or permits to get started. All you need is a plastic bottle and a ramming stick to ram the loose plastic into the bottle to make an entire house. Well, almost. 

When you save or pick up plastics and pack them into bottles, you can make building blocks out of the bottles to leverage the longevity and durability of plastic for good - to create a forever lasting structure.

They are made by cleaning, drying, then packing plastic into a drink bottle. You need to pack it tight so the “brinks” are solid, resulting in a solid home. Ecobricks can also be used to build furniture, or anything else that can be made with a Lego type technology, like benches, beds or tables.

These are not just a technology, this is a movement with workshops and community centers built around the product.

So now you’ve got a bunch of plastic bottles packed so tight with crap, they’ve got a density like, well, like a brick. How are you going to build a wall with them?

These ecobricks can be connected together into a wall by using tire bands, silicone, cob, and even good old fashioned concrete. Cob is a natural building material made from clay, sand, straw, and water or other earthen based mortar. Ecobricks are laid horizontally in cob mortar. The result is a thick, sturdy construction with the cob mortar completely encasing the ecobricks to protect them from UV sunlight. If you protect your bottles from UV rays and the elements the brick will last pretty much forever. And because cob is relatively easy to crumble (as compared to concrete) ecobricks can be pulled out from the cob five years or 100 years later and be repurposed.

Ecobrick Modules

It’s easy to make versatile and tremendously practical indoor furniture that can be used in any way you need them. To make the modules use silicone. Silicone is different from plastics as it doesn’t degrade into toxins, yet it bonds ecobricks together. Very strongly. It is important to use these modules as indoor furniture only, because ecobricks should never be exposed to the sun; Ultra violet (UV) rays will gradually degrade the plastic bottle. After only two or three years, the brittle bottle will crack and burst, releasing all your hard packed plastic. Keep plastic indoors and out of the sun to avoid this problem. Just cover the ends of your bottles with your choice of morter.

Ecobricks should be made with clean and dry plastic. Styrofoam, bags, packaging, cellophane are all good. Start by segregating your ecobrickable plastic from all other materials. If there is any food, oil or dirt on your plastic, be sure to wash then dry. Dirty plastic inside an ecobrick will lead to microbiological growth and methane forming inside your ecobrick Since ecobricks are often used to make home furniture, using clean plastic is  important. Dirty plastic can lead to unsightly ecobricks, bloated bottles and in rare cases, caps popping off.

When you start ecobricking, it’s good to choose one kind of bottle that is in abundance in your community and stick to it. When selecting the bottle that you will use, consider three factors: the bottle’s availability, the volume, and the project you will use the ecobrick for. The last thing you want to have to do is buy drinks to have a bottle for your ecobricking bottles under 600ml. are best, as larger bottles will take a lot of plastic to fill. Small volume bottles allow new ecobrickers to finish their first ecobrick fast, and learn from their mistakes. Large bottles are best for advanced ecobrickers.

For building modules with ecobricks, you need bottles that are exactly the same size and shape. For outdoor building projects, exact sameness is not so important, so long as the volume is consistent (i.e. all 600ml bottles). Depending on the size of construction, you will need different size bottles. For example, small bottles make good walls, and large bottles make good benches.

Ecobrickers like to call their packing stick, their magic wand because it makes the plastic disappear. Having the right wand will make a big difference to your ecobricking. Bamboo and wood make the best sticks. The size of the stick depends on the type of bottle you go with. You want a stick with a diameter roughly one third the width of a standard bottle opening– so about 6mm. You want your stick to be about twice the height of your bottle, with a slightly rounded tip. Avoid sharp cornered sticks as they can rupture the bottle and you can get splinters and blisters on your hand.

What you don’t put in your ecobrick is just as important as what you do. Remember that we are putting plastic inside and ecobrick because it is toxic to the environment. Metal, paper, cardboard, glass and biodegradables will not poison the biosphere– so there is no need to put them into a bottle. Be especially careful not to pack sharp metal or glass into an ecobrick– they can rupture the sides and pose a danger for handling. There are other solutions for these materials: Paper and cardboard can be safely burned. Biodegradables can be composted. Metal and glass can be recycled.

The first piece of plastic you put in the bottle will give it a bottom color for building. Choose a soft plastic with a solid color, then push it down to the bottom of your ecobrick. Pack it in with your stick to fill the first 1-2cms of the bottle (you might want to use a few plastics of the same color). Cellophane bags work great. By giving your ecobrick bottom a color, you open up colorful design possibilities for making modules or building walls.

Now it’s time to pack away. Use your stick to push down the plastic around the inside of the bottle– move in a circle pushing down along the sides. To maximize the density, it’s good to mix soft, then hard plastic. Cut up big plastics into smaller pieces. The smaller the pieces, the denser you’ll get. If it’s your first ecobrick, weigh occasionally to make sure you are on track for your target minimum weight. A good minimum density is 0.33 g/ml. This means that a 600ml bottle will have a minimum weight of 200 grams and a 1500ml bottle will have a minimum weight of 500 grams. Minimum density goals are essential to ensure quality ecobricks. Quality ecobricks ensure good constructions, make the most of the volume and energize the social spread of ecobricks. Ecobricks that are too soft can compromise structural constructions. And by densely packing  the bottle, we make the most of the bottle to trap plastic. Again. Cut bottles can be recycled.

Tip: Once you get to the middle of your ecobrick, pack 2-3cms of lighter colored plastic. By forming a center white ring of plastic you will later have a clear location to label your Ecobrick with a permanent black marker. Many ecobrickers write a prayer or a vision on the bottle in a permanent marker. Your ecobrick will last a long time. Why not let your grandkids know that you were thinking of them?

Once complete, you will need to store your ecobricks until you have enough for you project. Store ecobricks indoors, out of the sun, stack horizontally, with the ends pointed outward (this way you can see the colors you have to work with). It’s good to have the ecobricks raised slightly above the floor– rats have been known to chew away at bottles!

Learn more about making modules here