Photo courtesy of Unsplash
Ecobricking, also known as bottlebricking, is the practice of reusing plastic to create “bricks” composed that can be used to build furniture, garden beds, and more. Ecobricking.org describes an ecobrick as, “a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle packed solid with clean and dry used plastic” On the surface, this seems like a great way of reusing plastic, rather than having it deteriorate in a landfill or the ocean. On paper, this is a solid idea to extend the usefulness and life cycle of plastic waste, but in reality, plastic remains an unsafe and unsustainable building material to work with. From a systems perspective, health concerns and needed regulation regarding this proposed building material must be considered.
Most of the legislation around plastics is about limiting the dangers from the phthalates they contain. Phthalates are chemicals that are added into plastic to increase durability. In 2011, the FDA passed a rule that limits the amount of the phthalate DEHP, a plasticizer allowed in water bottles. DEHP is unsafe because of hormone disruption, and can affect neurological and physical development. Phthalates such as DEHP are found in most plastics because they make it more flexible and less brittle. Despite the abundance of plastic, plastic-free alternatives are becoming more accessible. Some popular alternatives are reusable bags, beeswax wraps, metal water bottles, bamboo cutlery, and more. In building structures or furniture, many plastic-free options exist including wood, bamboo, clay, glass, concrete, steel, and aluminum. These materials break down more easily, and do not put out harmful particulate matter into the environment as they break down, unlike plastic.
One of the main dangers of plastic is the particulate matter that gets released into the air, soil, and nearby water sources as they begin to break down. According to Plastics Today, “off gassing” or “outgassing,” as this phenomenon is called, occurs because, “when plastics go through extrusion or injection molding processes, they can trap tiny pockets of gas as they solidify. Heat, sunlight, and time can cause these trapped gas bubbles to expand and blow microscopic holes in the surface of the plastic, releasing the gas—outgassing.” The problem is that these leached toxic chemicals from plastic items disperse into the surrounding air, ground, and water. A study that focused on plastic toxicity explored leached chemicals with a focus on how many chemicals migrated out of plastics during normal use. 24 different plastic everyday items were tested for 10 days at 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Zimmerman and their colleagues concluded that, “between 1 and 88% of the plastic chemicals associated with one product were migrating…. All plastic products we investigated leached chemicals triggering in vitro toxicity” In other words, if a toxic chemical is used to create plastic, and that plastic is used regularly, that toxic chemical will leach out of it throughout its usage. What makes this particularly concerning, other than environmental pollution, are the human health repercussions.
A study titled, “Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products” looked into how many common types of plastic release harmful toxins. It found that 13 out of the 34 types of plastics tested positive for released endocrine disrupting chemicals. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, “mimic a natural hormone, fooling the body into over-responding to the stimulus, responding at inappropriate times, [or they] block the effects of a hormone from certain receptors… and others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones.” In the short term, hormone imbalances can yield increased or decreased insulin, growth hormone, and thyroid hormones. In the long term, it can cause developmental issues, an increased cancer risk, issues in the nervous and immune systems, and reproductive issues. The study from 2019 found that some types of plastics released more toxic chemicals than others; 21 out of 34 plastics examined showed a baseline toxicity. Another factor that comes into play with chemicals released from plastic, is the plastic particles themselves.
When plastic deteriorates, pieces less than a length of five millimeters are created. These tiny pieces are microplastics, end up in bodies of water and harm marine life and through the food chain humans. One major issue with microplastics is bioaccumulation. Bioaccumulation occurs when organisms consume microplastics present in food sources, and those plastics accumulate in that organism over time. Microplastics have been found all over the world and affect all organisms from plankton to whales. A threat to marine and human health, plastic particles will continue to become increasingly dangerous and abundant as they accumulate over time, exacerbating plastic pollution's harmful effects.
Plastics are not universally safe, so reusing them as bricks can pose a safety issue. The ecobricking.org website instructs users to encase their eco bricks in clay soil, let it dry, then cover the structure with concrete to prevent the plastic from deteriorating. In theory, this method works, but it does become more and more dangerous as clay around the plastic erodes, leading to contamination. Completed encased bricks aside, any furniture and structures with bottle caps and bottoms exposed risks the integrity of the entire bottle. Leaving any portion of the inner plastic material exposed shortens its lifespan to 2-3 years. The plastic will start to fragment and break down, which destroys its structural integrity. With these considerations for material integrity and its human health impacts, it is time to adopt a governmental systems perspective, and aid where possible on an individual level.
Armed with knowledge of how dangerous plastics are, individuals can work towards using less plastic in their own lives by using alternatives and supporting lobbying efforts for its minimization. It doesn’t seem like much, but the power of consumers’ choices can greatly impact the products sold. Increasing demand for easy and viable alternatives to plastic encourages less plastic pollution for our planet, and gives clear signals for government action. Organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition have petitions geared to help mitigate the use and production of plastic products. Please consider petitioning your support as a stakeholder in the campaign against these harmful chemicals.
Bray, N. (2020, May 15). Bubble, bubble, outgassing and trouble. plasticstoday.com. https://www.plasticstoday.com/automotive-and-mobility/bubble-bubble-outgassing-and-trouble
Fed. Reg. vol. 70 no. 163, 27 C.F.R. pts. 4, 24 & 27, 2005, Fed. Reg. vol. 70 no. 163, 27 C.F.R. pts. 4, 24 & 27, 2005
Global Ecobrick Alliance. (2022, October 17). Ecobrick powered plastic transition. Ecobricks.org. from https://ecobricks.org/en/
Miller, M. E., Hamann, M., & Kroon, F. J. (2020). Bioaccumulation and biomagnification of microplastics in marine organisms: A review and meta-analysis of current data. PloS one, 15(10), e0240792. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0240792
National Centers for Environmental Information. Marine Microplastic Concentrations. https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/b296879cc1984fda833a8acc93e31476
Sea Saltash Environmental Action. (2020, March 19). 'Eco' bricks are not ok. Sea Saltash Environmental Action. from https://www.seasaltash.org.uk/eco-bricks-are-not-ok/
United States Environmental Protection Agency. Overview of Endocrine Disruption. https://www.epa.gov/endocrine-disruption/overview-endocrine-disruption
Wang, Y., & Qian, H. (2021). Phthalates and Their Impacts on Human Health. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 9(5), 603. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare9050603
Zimmermann, L., Bartosova, Z., Braun, K., Oehlmann, J., Völker, C., & Wagner, M. (2021). Plastic Products Leach Chemicals That Induce In Vitro Toxicity under Realistic Use Conditions. Environmental science & technology, 55(17), 11814–11823. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.1c01103
Zimmermann, Lisa. Dierkes, Georg. Ternes, Thomas A. Völker, Carolin, and Wagner, Martin. Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products (2019). Environmental Science & Technology, 53 (19), 11467-11477 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.9b02293.