On TikTok, creators are shoving granola bar wrappers and plastic wrap into Simply Lemonade and 2-liter soda bottles, packing in hundreds of flimsy bits of plastic waste until it’s as dense as a brick.
If given to interested builders, those bottle-bricks can be used to build schools in Nicaragua and homes in the Philippines. Videos promoting the bricks call them “ecobricks,” and say they can address the waste management issues in some less affluent countries, while providing an affordable material to build infrastructure.
The official TikTok for Good account promoted ecobricks this month, touting how the bricks were putting plastic to use instead of it being incinerated or going to landfills.
“Next time you’re about to toss your plastic, consider making an ecobrick instead,” the video concludes.
Ecobrick TikToks say if you make an ecobrick, you’ll become more aware of the amount of plastic your household consumes, and be incentivized to consume less.
But would these hold up to U.S. building codes, or would they just get sent to a landfill? And do they distract from sustainability projects that don’t rely on a steady stream of plastic?
Sorry to burst your bubble, ecobrickers: Researchers say there’s very little known about the environmental impact or construction feasibility of ecobricks. But they’re probably a more efficient way of compacting plastic waste, which can save space at landfills; and, keeping it contained in bottles and out of nature will limit the amount of microplastics in the environment.
LX.com spoke to two experts who indicated that more research on ecobricks is needed before they should see widespread use in construction.
“You want to do your due diligence,” said Chris Reddy, a senior scientist working on marine pollution at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a major nonprofit ocean research facility. “The last thing folks want to do when you're trying to move forward to do something better to the environment, is actually have it not work. And then you'll have less buy-in down the road and people will be less likely to embrace it.”
If the goal is to get ecobricks used in more construction projects, they would have to be made in or shipped to countries with looser building codes than the U.S., said Dibs Sarkar, who teaches sustainability management at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
"Say 'I'm going to do a building out of this,' see what your township says," Sarkar said. "They are never going to pass any of the safety and other construction requirements that we have here."
The official ecobricks website, maintained by the Global Ecobricks Alliance, urges builders to cover up the bottles with earth or mud to use ecobricks in any long-term project. Covering up the bottles avoids risk of sunlight damaging or decomposing the plastic. Exposed plastic should be left indoors only.
The GEA did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
If ecobricks are the subject of funded research, maybe more uses for them would be found beyond building material, said Reddy.
“You just have to do your homework and do the work, but it’s never fast and somebody has to pay for it, as well,” Reddy said. Maybe a politician or company would see ecobricks being made and encourage more research and development funding into potential uses. “If you have kind of a ground-level effort, somebody is going to embrace this and get the funds and the R&D to kick the tires, and determine if it’s safe, and it works.”
Ecobricks might give these experts pause, but that’s not stopping social media content urging you to start ecobricking your plastic waste today. But finding a place to drop them off or use them is not always easy. In the comments on the Tiktok for Good video, multiple people say they made ecobricks for awhile, only to discover that no one near them was accepting ecobrick donations or building with them.
Creators will tell you if ecobricks you make go to landfills instead of a building project, that’s still a better outcome than if you had never made an ecobrick in the first place.
Sarkar concurred, saying ecobricks are better for landfilling plastic.
“It’s basically reducing the surface area,” Sarkar said. “It would be a much better way of landfilling it, and you could say ‘well, we are actually saving plastic from ending up in an albatross,’ for example.”
Pages on the ecobricks website cite a connection to the Ayyew philosophy of the Igorot people of northern Luzon in the Philippines. The philosophy sees nothing as waste and focuses on finding a use for everything.
Sarkar said ecobricks have been developed in other countries as a use for pieces of plastic waste that may have been shipped or dumped there.
“What they used to do was put them in landfills, which were a lot less scientific than the landfills here. These are open dumps,” Sarkar said. And because those dumps were not properly managed, trash was ending up in the ocean.
"It was like...a killing two birds with one stone kind of a thing. They're not dumping it in the ocean, and they're trying to make something that may be of use."
When filled with plastic wrappers and other thin plastics, which are more vulnerable to degradation, ecobricks are removing plastic from the environment and sequestering it for the long term, the ecobricks website says.
In a video promoting ecobricks, a presenter says raw pieces of plastic are being seen not as waste, but as a resource.
“It’s something not to throw away, it’s something to segregate," the video explains. "And in this way, we have communities all around the northern Philippines working together, where their trash is evaporating, and there’s no more waste, their dump sites are being reduced, and we see beautiful green spaces being built collaboratively in communities around the province — gardens, parks, play areas, where people can come together and experience a place that is in harmony with nature.”
Sarkar said the most impactful thing for the environment would be cutting our relationship with plastics. Ecobricks provide a use for the plastic that already litters waterways, but may not incentivize the transition away from new plastic as creators hope.
“People will think that it’s OK to use single-use plastics because now we know to put them in ecobricks…they will take away from the initiative to ban those kind of things to begin with.”
Still, the trend is catchy, even if it’s not a suitable building material to see widespread use.
“It’s easy to do, and basically if you pack one plastic bottle in a week or two weeks, you get some good karma points,” Sarkar said. “But the problem is that the good karma for you doesn’t always translate to good karma for Mother Earth.”
“Your generation can take the lead and make [single-use] plastic a thing of the past,” through policies like plastic bag bans, which are only in a few states right now, Sarkar said. “Those are the kind of changes that need to be made … building consensus and educating people on how bad it is, so that even people in a remote village in West Virginia will say ‘OK, I think I’m not going to use plastic anymore.’”