After a morning spent cleaning up plastic from a river in the mountains of Pupuan, Bali, a group of teenagers created signs to place in the village to help stem the tide of dumping. One 16-year old painted Budayakan keranjang dan daun pisang, translating to “Socialize a culture of baskets and banana leaves.”
Just a few generations ago in Bali, Indonesia, all goods were packaged in baskets, banana leaves, and other natural materials. Furniture and toys were made of unpainted bamboo and wood. Temporary packaging, religious offerings, and objects past their useful lives were tossed to the nearest unoccupied hillside when no longer needed, and melted into the soil to create new life. Many residents remain unaware that plastic and other non-biodegradable goods do not fit into natural cycles of creation and decomposition. The global economy’s reliance on the production and consumption of disposable goods is manifest in the chip wrappers, plastic bags, and single-serving shampoo packets that move quickly from shops into valleys, rivers, and beaches, and into dioxin-laced smoke pouring from burning piles of leaves and refuse in roadside ditches.
In Bali and throughout the world, governments and economies have reinforced the consumption of plastic by offering centralized “solutions” to the problem of non-recyclable, non-biodegradable trash. Dumpsites are invariably located in the poorest areas without consent from surrounding communities, and waste-to-electricity incinerator plants create a profit motive for more production of waste. Both approaches, as well as recycling programs, take waste “away,” limiting the awareness that might slow the consumption of mass-produced goods, while avoiding accountability for the industries that produce them.
Local Futures usually profiles examples of system-level change, such as community-driven bans on plastic bags and junk food, recognizing that the locus of responsibility for problems and transformative solutions falls on economic systems rather than on consumer choices. Still, technological solutions for cleaning up existing plastic and protecting the most vulnerable parts of the biosphere are an important accompaniment to systemic transitions in the production and use of disposable plastics. To that end, this month’s article focuses on the ecobrick, a simple and profound method of sequestering post-consumer soft plastics, exploring its relationship with the global economy and ability to catalyze changes in ecological consciousness.
Solution in a Bottle
Ecobricks are plastic bottles packed densely with clean, dry, used plastic, leaving them firm enough to be used as a functional building block for furniture, walls, fences, and benches. The technique, free and easy to learn, empowers people to manage their own plastic on an individual and community level even without the involvement of governments or other institutions. Because of this, it can spread virally; in June 2016, just a few months after ecobricks were first introduced to the city of Yogyakarta in Central Java, all 453 neighborhood associations were using the technique to sequester their soft plastics. A recent YouTube video about ecobricks garnered more than 4 million views within a few months.
The Global Ecobrick Alliance (GEA), an international volunteer community that stewards the movement, emphasizes teaching the practice of ecobricks as both a community-driven solution to pollution and a gateway to deeper ecological consciousness. The GEA has roots in the Cordilleras Autonomous Region in the northern Philippines, home to the Igorot community. One of the few unconquered indigenous communities in Southeast Asia, traditional Igorot practices center on the principle of ayyew — described as “steadily tightening, syncing, and strengthening the cycles [that humans are] are a part of.” [As quoted by Irene Nhe Angway in Russell Maier’s essay “1000 Years Pollution Free.”]
Russell Maier, from Canada, and Sir Ernesto, a councilor in Sabangan village, noticed that the plastic littering the nearby Chico River — and the global consumer economy that produced it — were glaringly at odds with the ayyew philosophy. In 2010, they started placing soft plastics in bottles, observing that it produced results similar to the more common construction method of filling bottles with river sand. They introduced the idea to the local secondary school; kids loved it and ecobricked the plastic in the streets, cleaned out a local dump, replaced it with a compost pit, and then created a garden. Over the following four years, ecobricks spread to more than 2,000 schools in the region through collaborative efforts with the Department of Education.
Ten years later, GEA workshops now focus on comparing the life cycles of plastics and biodegradable materials and discussing the health and environmental hazards of plastic. After a conversation about strategies for reducing consumption and using biodegradable packaging options, trainers then teach communities how to create ecobricks to clean up existing plastic and as a method to handle plastic responsibly as they transition away from purchasing plastic-wrapped goods.
Ecobricks are effective in limiting the spread of discarded plastic in communities that don’t have effective municipal systems to handle it. Some might argue that this is only a “downstream” solution — one that helps to clean up an environmental mess rather than tackling its root causes. But one of the ecobrick’s merits is that it prevents plastic from literally moving further downstream, into the oceans. Both intercontinental shipping of garbage and natural ocean currents perpetuate the ill effects of the globalized economy by moving wrappers around the world long after their contents have been consumed.
GEA trainings stress that recycling facilities send the plastic “away” on a journey of degradation until it can no longer be recycled. In Bali, PET bottles that make it into recycling centers are shipped to Germany, where they are made into polyester fleece textiles. After shedding countless tiny fibers that accumulate in aquatic ecosystems, the fleeces will be disposed of at the end of their useful lives. GEA aims to stop these downward spirals in their tracks by advocating total personal responsibility for ensuring that purchased packaging does not make another journey into the biosphere, whether nearby or far away.
Can it curb consumption?
In addition to these “downstream” benefits, the Global Ecobrick Alliance hopes that ecobricks will also provide a catalyst for people to think more critically about their consumption habits. Because discarded plastic is highly visible and widespread, especially in the developing world, it can be a starting point for community conversations about environmental issues and transitioning from global to local economies.
How has this worked out in practice? So far, results have been mixed. After completing an extensive survey of ecobrick practices in the Cordilleras over the past six years, GEA advocate Andrew Dieleman concluded that it remains unclear how ecobricks have affected purchasing and disposal habits throughout the region.
Some impacts are clearly positive. During a presentation to a women’s association in rural Bali, Indonesia, a woman asked the trainers how she could participate in shutting down the factories that make plastic. The women started talking excitedly about how to disengage from the global plastics industry, and committed to figuring out creative ways to replace plastic with bamboo baskets in their daily lives.
In other cases, the high visibility of discarded plastic can lead communities to focus on solutions for disposal, rather than on creating a fundamental shift in thinking about how and where their everyday needs are produced. Worse, in the city of Baguio in the Philippines, where ecobricks are required for school but the underlying cradle-to-cradle philosophy has not been taught fully, consumption of plastic increased in some households as parents purchased extra plastic-wrapped goods to help their children fill their quotas of ecobricks. Similarly, a focus on the aesthetics of ecobricks has led some families to display their ecobricks as art, and to purchase goods wrapped in aluminum-plastic hybrid packaging to boost the aesthetic appeal of their creations — fulfilling the manufacturers’ hopes of enticing buyers with shiny, colorful packaging.
But when teachers, trainers, and community leaders are dedicated to fostering deeper learning, ecobricks can be a successful gateway to greater understanding of the relationship between plastic, globalization, and regenerative societies. Sir Alberto Muyot, undersecretary for the Department of Education in Northern Luzon, observed that in some towns, the ecobrick movement generated conversations about the presence of packaged junk food in schools. Visionary proponents like Sir Ernesto and Irene Nhe Angway, assistant superintendent with the Department of Education in Sagada, have used ecobricks as a starting point for curricula in moving beyond plastic, moving away from junk food, and creating school gardens. The ecobricks themselves are part of the infrastructure of gardens where students learn to grow fresh, healthy food.
The decentralized, self-propagating nature of the movement has led to widespread adoption by communities and a high variability in systems-level outcomes, serving as a prominent reminder that technology — no matter how charismatic — cannot by itself expand people’s awareness. To that end, the GEA team is constantly learning from on-the-ground experience to refine their teaching resources and bring deeper understanding to the hundreds of thousands of ecobrickers around the world.
In each community that engages with ecobricks, no matter how deeply it is connected with the vision and global network of the GEA, the plastic stays local without dispersing into vulnerable parts of the biosphere. These shiny scraps — artifacts from a faraway land — will long remain a part of each community’s history. For those who work towards reclaiming sovereignty from the global capitalist economy, ecobricks point to a local future synthesized from both the pre-industrial past and the modern era — and built of safely sequestered plastics, baskets, and banana leaves.
For more information about ecobricks and the Global Ecobrick Alliance, please visit ecobricks.org.
Article written by Carly Gayle.
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