From plastic waste to eco-bricks

A volunteer
uses a small PVC pipe to push plastic ‘stuffings’ into a bottle.

GARBAGE, especially plastic discards, dumped into drains or by the roadsides, accidentally or otherwise, will eventually find their way into the sea.

This, in turn, will wreak havoc on marine life that mistake such dangerous non-biodegradables for food, and eating them can cause the denizens of the briny deep health complications or worse, death.

Garbage that ends up in the seas and oceans gets eaten by fish. Fishermen catch the fish and sell them to consumers who then eat the fish — toxins and all. The vicious cycle of garbage is, thus, complete.

Aside from affecting the seafood we eat, discarded plastic materials, bags in particular, also endanger marine wildlife like sea turtles and whales which eat them by mistake and die of starvation due to defective ingestion.

The completed eco-bricks.

This could affect the food chain in open waters where plastic waste abounds through indiscriminate disposal.

Future generations will be the poorer if marine life, as we know it, becomes extinct one day from plastic poisoning.

The saving grace is awareness raised by conservation-conscious groups on the importance of environmental cleanliness on land and sea, and in Kuching, there are three such groups — the Kuching Beach Cleaners, the Sarawak Eco-Warriors and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) — which regularly hold voluntary beach-cleaning campaigns to ensure less waste ends up in the sea.

But given the mountains of garbage collected and disposed of everyday, the inevitable question is how to prevent plastic waste, found among the garbage, from reaching the seas and oceans?

The obvious answer is to not throw them away but find some useful purposes for them.

If rubbish is not callously dumped into the waterways, fishes and other marine life will not eat it. In this way, there is also a greater likelihood of being able to put contamination-free food on the table.

Thinking along this line, Sarawak Eco-Warriors president Mark Liao has found a way to turn plastic waste into eco-bricks.

Eco-bricks are plastic bottles packed with plastic ‘stuffings’ to a set density to create reusable building blocks for making modular furniture, garden spaces and even full-scale buildings such as schools and houses.

Team members with the newly completed eco-bench.

The size of the bricks depends on the size of the bottles.

“We got the idea early this year but only managed to put it into practice about a month ago as we were waiting for a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) YOUnified grant to fund the project.

“The grant was US$250 and ours was the first eco-brick project in Kuching. We made the first public eco-brick structure we called eco-bench,” he told thesundaypost at the Santubong National Park where the structure is located.

Liao said since the start of the project, initiated by the Sarawak Eco-Warriors in collaboration with the Kuching Beach Cleaners, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, 60 eco-bricks had been made but not all could be used as there was a weight and density requirement that had to be met. This meant replacing them with traditional bricks.

Over 100 people were involved in the project and the group had an engagement session at Eco Lodge Daycare earlier this month (December).

Eco-brick parts left exposed to allow visitors to see what the bench is made of.

Seventy-nine Eco Lodge primary school pupils attended the WCS presentation on marine life and how plastics in the oceans affected the creatures of the deep. The pupils were then shown how to make eco-bricks and they were able to come up with 60 pieces one week after the session.

There were also volunteers who met every Thursday night to make eco-bricks. Some of the plastic stuffings were given by the public. The less tidy ones had to be cleaned and dried. The rest of the stuffings came from the volunteers’ own homes and offices.

Even the bottles had to be clean and dry before they could be stuffed. Bottles with a 1.5 litre capacity were used. The best stuffing method was to put in the soft plastics like bags first, followed by the harder plastics like bottles, cut into small pieces, and topped up with more soft plastics. These materials were stuffed tightly into the bottles, using a stick to make sure they were really compact.

 

Eco-bench project

According to Liao, making eco-bricks is easy — anyone can do it — young and old — as no machines or special skills are needed.

“For the eco-bench project, we used 33 eco-bricks plus cement, taking 12 people to complete in three days. Before the actual construction, we consulted a cement expert and other YSEALI members who have done this before.

“While waiting for the cement to harden in making the bench, we arranged the bricks layer by layer — on top of one other — so that they won’t float up as the bricks were light. We repeated the process until we got the height we wanted,” he explained.

The two-seater bench, he said, was for the National Park guests to use while taking a rest after going up the mountain trail, adding that there was also a table top game they could play at the same spot.

When thesundaypost met up with Liao, the bench had just been completed.  He said it would be painted and the table top game might be tic-tac-toe or checkers.

On the challenges of making the bench, he said they were mostly due to inexperience in doing labour work and the cement taking longer to dry because of rain.

 

Future plans

On future plans for eco-bricks, he said they would wait and see how long the structures last and plan accordingly.

“If the bricks are practical and useable long term, we will consider making more structures. Most likely, we will continue with the project as we have stocks of eco-bricks. We just need to find a good place to make another structure.

“At first, we wanted to do it in the city areas. More people would be able to see it to create awareness of the project. We were thinking of Reservoir Park, Kuching Waterfront and even MBKS Dewan Masyarakat,” he added.

For the project at Santubong National Park, Liao said the organisers would like to thank the management for their help and support.

He also pointed out that at the end of the day, turning plastic waste into eco-bricks was just a minor solution to a much larger problem. “Our main agenda is to educate the public on reducing waste.They can bring reusable bags when shopping, turn down straws and bring their own containers and utensils when buying ‘tapao’ and so on.

“This will also reduce the land needed for landfills which can instead be turned into parks and for other useful purposes.”

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg has called for waste reduction to be made the top priority by adopting the 3R method — reducing, reusing and recycling — and educating the public on environmentally responsible consumer behaviour.

“Whenever possible, waste reduction is the preferable option. If waste is produced, every effort should be made to reuse it, if practicable.

“Recycling is the third option in waste management hierachy and while recycling does help to conserve resources and reduce waste, it’s important to remember there are economic and environmental costs associated with waste collection and recycling.

“For this reason, recycling should only be considered for waste which cannot be reduced or reused, and it may be possible to recover materials or energy from waste which cannot be reduced, reused or recycled,” he said at the 8th Sarawak Chief Minister’s Environmental Award (CMEA) presentation recently.

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