Waste Systems & Recycling

A Gutful of Garbage

The Plastic Solutions Are Now the Plastic Problem

Last weekend, I was working on an assignment for another website about ways to repurpose plastic bottles. It was an article not unlike ones I’d done before: 10 Reasons You Should Reuse Newspapers, 10 Creative DIY Crafts for Old Drawers, 7 DIY Projects for Rusty Roofing Tin, etc. I’ve been writing articles about environmental woes and potential solutions, particularly on a personal level, for some time now.

I like to think that the original intent of such articles was along the lines of using what we’ve got rather than buying another product in order to do a task an old tin can, a jar, or a wine bottle can do. In other words, there’s no need to buy a plastic container to hold screws when there’s a can or jar around, no need to buy biodegradable plant pots when newspapers can be rolled into the same thing without factories or shipping or new resources consumed. Things like that felt right to me. They seemed practical.

An entirely different problem

Over time, however, the issues have morphed from where they were when I started to an entirely different problem. The rise of responsible packaging and green labelling has made consumers feel warm and fuzzy inside while more or less creating the same waste.

“Compostable” plastics aren’t, in fact, practically compostable; terms like “degradable” fool folks into think they are doing something good; and “recyclable” can be put on just about any packaging and is not a solution. In short, commercialism caught on.

With this change, the articles began to have a different tone, constant reminders that reducing waste was the most important factor in this effort. Recycling isn’t “sustainable”, nor is bio-plastic made from monoculture corn production or any disposable product for that matter. In essence, the point is to not buy a bunch of stuff that creates “green” garbage and do our best to make use of the garbage we do create as products, ourselves, of the current systems.

In other words, repurposing crafts are not a solution for what’s flooding our waste stream. Our time and energy could be much better spent if we just avoided the packaging as much as possible. In fact, environmentally speaking, our efforts would be better spent with the act of avoiding the packaging instead of figuring out what to do with it. Repurposing is good when garbage exists, but that’s not to say it’s reason to create garbage to repurpose.

“Botella + Basura” by Luis Pérez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

That’s when the whole thing got to me

Getting back to this past weekend, as I sat to write about how to repurpose plastic bottles, the whole thing got to me. Most of the repurposing projects, stuff like soda bottle piggy banks, plastic bottle lamp shades, and PET cellphone holders, felt so unrealistic and meaningless. Who in the hell wants shit like this? How many plastic bottles can be used for pencil organisers or ribbon dispensers? How many plastic bottle crafts can a person actually tolerate in their home?

Having pitched creating a long list of projects for repurposing plastic bottles, I found myself in a moral quandary: I didn’t believe this kind of effort would make any difference whatsoever. The average American accounts for 13 plastic water bottles a month, before even considering how many bottles of soda, lemonade, ice tea, milk, juice, and whatever else. With that kind of consumption, the entire house would soon be filled with so many plastic bottle decorative containers, jewelry stands, and jet pack costumes that there would be no room left to live (a sort of painful analogy for the planet in the age of plastic).

The really useful projects

So, the list drastically shortened into things I deemed useful and that would consume large quantities of plastic bottles. An NGO in Guatemala, Hug It Forward, was collecting plastic bottles, stuffing them with inorganic material, and using them to build schools and community centres. Similar construction was happening in many other places in the world, too. A New Zealander living in Fiji (and many others around the world) had built boats from bottles, as well as other buoyant structures like floating islands and piers. Hey, if they are going to last for hundreds of years, floating around in oceans, why not harness that power?

Aside from being practical (more so than a plastic bottle Christmas tree), what I liked about these projects were that they could repurpose hundreds and thousands of plastic bottles at a time. I looked for other projects that could do that.

And, people have built greenhouses out of plastic bottles. An artist built a beautiful parking canopy (perhaps a stretch on practicality) out of 1500-plus suspended plastic bottles with dyed water in them. A school had built a vertical garden wall out of plastic bottles, which of course is limited because, for those worried about chemical leaching from PET plastic, eating food grown in PET bottles probably doesn’t jive. Nevertheless, gardens have more uses than providing food for people.

Even if we consider these projects viable solutions for some of the trash we’ve already created, the inescapable point to be made here is that they aren’t an invitation to continually add to the problem.

Sure, as permaculturalists we are looking for the problem to be the solution and these types of projects might provide some of that ilk, but the point is not to irrepressibly exacerbate the problem. In other words, if we consider Mollison’s famous snail problem-duck shortage scenario, presumably the solution would not include intentionally bringing more snails into the garden once the ducks have eradicated the ones that were there in the first place.


“Trash sorting” by nSeika is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As I write this now, Geoff Lawton’s take on earthship houses (look at the comments on this post as Geoff agrees “with everything Robert is saying”) built from old tyres, reverberates in my mind. Despite it being a means of repurposing old tyres, the fact of the matter is that building with them often is unduly labour intensive, as well as energy intensive when all of the concrete, plaster, and steel reinforcement is accounted for. Have the bottle brick structures done anything better? Sure, they can hide our sanitary misdeed in the walls of a school or community centre, an amazing feat, but are they sending the right message?

In other words, just because we can do something with garbage doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most ecologically friendly solution. I wouldn’t want the use of bottles and inorganic trash for building schools (or floating islands or greenhouses) to inspire or excuse more creation of said trash. Furthermore, the concrete used to frame and cover the bottle walls is the most planet-destroying building material we have.

The problem is complex

Obviously, the problem is complex, as we have to account for the trash we already have, but in doing so, we can’t worsen other environmental issues. That’s not to say these building methods couldn’t be improved upon or improve the current situation, only that they aren’t a solution but another veil over the real concerns.

Our plastic solutions have become our plastic problems. Instead of avoiding plastic bottles, industry has recreated plastic’s image to make it more digestible for consumers but not really the planet. Instead of saying we have to stop buying plastic bottles at all costs, we come up with long lists of kitschy crafts for repurposing them.

Instead of building with natural, sustainable materials, we pretend plastic bottles are an environmentally friendly construction medium when these projects are really a patch for the enduring problem. They aren’t more cost-effective. They aren’t less labour-intensive. They aren’t even better for the environment.

While it’s now easy and somewhat counter-productive to point all of this out and cry foul, sometimes perhaps it’s good for us to have a reminder of what the ideal is rather than the problem-riddled solution. It is entirely possible, and not even so challenging, to live without plastic drink bottles. The world is truly much better off when we avoid them, with no need for repurposing, be it a plastic bottle coin purse requiring the bottom of two bottles or a plastic bottle greenhouse using several thousand bottles.

The pressing issue, then, becomes how to eradicate the further accumulation of plastic bottles in the waste cycle, and unfortunately, neither ducks nor bottle boats are going to solve this one. Only we can.

Featured image: “Brevard Zoo, Viera FL” by Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. I’ve often thought the same about all the things made from recycled plastic, eventually it all breaks down and ends up in the same place it was always going. So are we just extending the trip to the Iandfill or ocean? We obviously have to create solutions for all the waste we’ve generated while Iearning the skills to use natural, regenerative materials. I really like the approach outlined in the book cradle to cradle, where you have two resource streams, one 100% biodegradable and one 100% recyclable. They also talk about how we need to shift towards a leasing not buying approach to large items and appliances so manufacturers can reclaim the materials. We are seeing a similar approach now but it is largely based on affordability. not a conscious decision to reclaim materials. I think manufacturers should be responsible for the safe disposal or recycling of their products. But that would be antithesis to the growth at all costs model.

  2. Amen! Excellent article. I work in an alternative school, and at least once a year somebody wants to do a workshop with our students to “Make crafts out of garbage” or build some structure incorporating garbage plastic bottles filled with something or other. I’m going to give your article to them in the future.
    More reasons I don’t like workshops to make “decorative” things out of garbage:
    — The intent is to make students “more aware” about garbage, but I fear the effect is instead, to give the wrong impression that there is a solution to garbage, and that recycling or reuse is an adequate solution.
    — When the kitchy junk breaks down it is usually mixed materials and can’t go into the recycling system.
    Reasons I’m hesitant about using plastic bottles in construction:
    — Plastic tends to crack and break with sun exposure, so it is not suitable for greenhouses or other exposed situations.
    — When its time is up it will be mixed materials and not possible to recycle, and may be mixed in with and contaminating some nice clean earth.
    — Which construction functions are you trying to have the bottles perform? In place of bricks? Don’t try to make them load bearing. If for insulation, maybe good. If for shedding rain, will they also allow leaks? Or when it’s not raining will they degrade in the sun? Think carefully about this question. Other materials may perform the function better, or more long-lasting, or with less labour.
    Construction with plastic bottles seems to me that its main function is for the photo taken right after completion. Why do we never seem to see a photo of the structure after two years?

  3. Absolutely !
    I think you are being hard on yourself by saying “it’s now easy and somewhat counter-productive to point all of this out and cry foul”.
    On the contrary, we have found it very hard and thought-provoking. While planning a series of “Plastic Attacks” on our local supermarkets, the Transition group I belong to were confronted with an enormous problem of communication. How do you get it across to the “mainstream” public that plastic “recycling” is a vast marketing ploy for the plastic industry, to whom an increase in plastic production is a fantastic outlet for increased crude oil extraction, given that we are all looking for ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption ? Or do you just give up on that too complex idea and start with a simpler one – that it can be fun to take part in a one-off effort to buy less plastic packaging in the supermarket, or at least to remove it at the till and make a big pile of it in the shop in exchange for a cotton bag or glass jar ? Do you satisfy yourself with baby steps to raise awareness of a) the problem and b) an ordinary person’s ability to act on it ? (that wasn’t the only communication problem we had, another big one was how much negative information about this poison can the public take ? How to talk about solutions without at least evoking the problems ?)
    A local scheme offers people “rewards” for collecting plastic bottles. I understand the argument that it can be a way of getting people to take a first step, but don’t see the point of starting with a lie. The “problem” is (very successfully) redefined as throwing plastic away in the “wrong” place, implying that if it were put in the bin it would be recycled and all would be well. But I had to fight to convince my farmer-consumer group not to become a collection point, that we could use our energy elsewhere. I’ve refused to take part in “Clean up day”, for the same reasons. Clean up day seems far more relevant to me since it evolved to collect the trade names on the plastic waste collected and return the responsibility to the companies who create this pollution.
    Community gardening and composting have enabled me to come at the problem from a different angle. I explain to participants that we have to remove all the little bits of plastic we find in the soil (or collected leaves, etc) because it’s a poison, and we don’t want to eat it via our fruits and vegetables. That’s a “tiny steps” approach that works for me. Yes, they have recycled plastics into decorations, plant-holders and so on, but that’s no doubt a step in the right direction for this particular group of residents who have a problem with litter and overflowing, dirty dustbins. Their next project (with my Transition group supporting) will be making a “plastic monster”. I am confident that they’ll “get there”.
    An extremely interesting and informative document can be consulted or downloaded here :
    And a very interesting article here :

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