This month marks a significant milestone in the effort to address marine plastic waste. Rotterdam, Netherlands–based nonprofit startup Ocean Cleanup deployed a 2,000-foot-long, U-shaped buoyant debris collector called “System 001,” which incorporates floating modules and a 10-foot-tall skirt to trap debris waste, and is currently undergoing trials 350 nautical miles offshore. If tests are successful, the boom will be deployed near the epicenter of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre consisting of nearly 90,000 tons of plastic refuse located 1,400 miles from the California coastline. Although there is much uncertainty regarding the system’s effectiveness, Ocean Cleanup believes that widespread deployment of the technology could reduce the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by half over five years.
Despite efforts to collect and reuse plastics, only 9 percent of the material is recycled globally, according to The Economist. And per a study conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the total volume of existing solid plastic waste would fill an area the size of Manhattan at a consistent height of 230 feet. Because most of this debris now litters the world’s oceans, organizations like Ocean Cleanup aim to remedy plastic’s broken life cycle by making the material it collects available as feedstock for new products. Given the sheer quantity of waste polymers available—and assuming the marine collection effort is viable—construction could be an ideal industry to employ the repurposed material. To this end, several innovative companies and nonprofits have developed novel methods to transform plastic waste into new building products.
Ecobricks is a grassroots online community that disseminates free, open-source guidelines for developing its eponymous building units from discarded plastics with minimal processing. Made by tightly packing leftover plastic bottles with smaller pieces of refuse such as plastic food wrappers, the resulting Ecobricks can be stacked horizontally and vertically, or fabricated into larger modules called Ecoblocks using thin plywood or plastic ties to make earthen or cementitious walls. The method is a particularly effective strategy for cleaning up local plastic waste and requires no additional machinery or energy inputs. However, it is a time-intensive process that may be most successful in economies where labor costs are low—or where volunteers are plentiful.
Los Angeles–based environmental services company ByFusion has developed a compact, mobile processing assembly for turning plastic trash into construction modules. The system—called the Blocker—consists of a shredder, a water boiler, and a compactor, and it is readily transportable inside a typical 40-foot-long shipping container. The system first chips waste plastic into small pieces, then melts down and compresses the particles into modules similar to concrete masonry units. According to ByFusion, the resulting ByBlocks can carry more weight than non-load-bearing concrete blocks, and have the added advantage of superior acoustic and thermal insulation. The process accommodates any type of plastic waste and requires no prior sorting or washing—thus minimizing labor.
While Ecobricks and ByBlocks are not designed for visible exposure, Alken, Belgium–based Govaerts Recycling fabricates repurposed plastic building modules that are intended for use as finished surfaces. In a cradle-to-cradle approach, the company employs renewable energy and water reuse when recycling polymers at its Belgium plant, ensuring that all second-life products are 100 percent recyclable. The resulting Govaplast products assume a variety of useful forms including boards, posts, tiles, and sheets with rectangular, cylindrical, and interlocking sections, which are available in a variety of muted earth-toned hues, and in smooth or ribbed surfaces. Last year, the company collaborated with Amsterdam-based design practices Bureau SLA and Overtreders W to clad a pavilion made of 100 percent repurposed materials for Dutch Design Week in specially developed multicolored overlapping Govaplast tiles, creating a scaled façade.
While the previous examples consist of discrete building modules, Puebla, Mexico–based EcoDom has developed larger building assemblies using discarded plastic. The company’s thermal wall product is an 8-foot-long, 2-foot-wide structural panel made of steel rebar frame with a dense shredded plastic infill, functioning as interior falsework as well as thermal insulation. Meanwhile, the reinforcing grid is designed for both gravity and lateral forces, providing resistance to seismic loads in the event of earthquakes. EcoDom also manufactures Thermal Roofing in the form of insulated reinforced concrete panels. The 4-foot-by-4-foot modules consist of a 1-inch-thick layer of concrete, which serves as a visible ceiling, and a structural frame that includes rebar and electro-welded mesh. A continuous sheet of recycled waste plastics forms a thermal barrier above the ceiling, insulating the concrete layer below.
Although inherently useful, recycled waste plastic requires the same—if not greater—vigilance concerning potential adverse human health effects as virgin plastic. Many polymers contain chemical additives and emit byproducts that are toxic, such as phthalates or dioxin, and filtering such ingredients is inherently tricky with recycled plastics. Based on the methods employed and the difficulties involved in sorting and cleaning plastic trash, these products are technically downcycled—meaning that they result in lower quality, lower value material than the source feedstock.
Nevertheless, such concerns may be negligible in light of the global environmental catastrophe we have caused with our unwanted plastic refuse. Some 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year. More than 260 animal species are adversely affected by marine plastic debris, and approximately 100,000 marine mammals die annually from this insidious form of pollution, according to PlasticPollution.org. If architects and contractors could safely incorporate the bulk of this material in new building applications, it would be one of humanity’s most significant achievements in global ecological restoration.