Bottle Bricks

This post has been left up for historical reference.  It reflects an opinion based upon the information we had at that time.  We now believe using bottles to make bricks is a misguided endeavor.  Bottles are worth too much for scrap value to be using in blocks.  If bottles become as worthless as foam and film plastics then we might advise using them again.  We doubt that will happen as their scrap value depends upon the current price of crude oil.

A bottle brick is a building block made from empty plastic bottles.  It is a form of recycling plastic bottles.  The bottles are compressed together in a mold.  Depending upon the pressure used to compress the plastic bottles in the mold the brick can be of the density of a bale of straw or it can have the density of a block of concrete.

Quick math suggests one bottle brick will hold approximately ten and  a half twenty four bottle cases of empty one liter water bottles.  Approximately 600 bricks to build a twelve feet by twelve feet room with seven foot high walls.  One such home removes approximately 180,000 empty plastic bottles from the landfills.  That’s 7,500 cases of empty one liter bottles or approximately 6,400 cubic feet of space.  That’s almost the volume of two fifty three foot semi truck trailers, 7,600 cubic feet.  Look at it this way, if the bottles were crumpled to fifty percent volume arriving at the recycling center every truck load could provide the materials for one 144 square foot one room home.

The inspiration for this invention was a speech and later conversation with Ronald Omygon.  Ronald is an architect in Kenya.  His passion is holistic building methods that help the poor with sanitation, drinking water, and housing.  I told him at the meeting that I believed there had to be a way we could tackle the problems with plastic waste and poverty at the same time with the same product.  I just knew that there had to be a product that could be made with plastic refuse.  And that product could be made with simple machinery and the product would be best if it was a new building product that could be installed with local traditional methods.

A week after that meeting I was awakened out of sleep that night with the idea of baling plastic bottles.  I can’t take credit for the idea  because it came to me, I didn’t seek it out, it found me.  The idea was to compress one liter drinking bottles into a block the size of standard adobe brick that is used in the southwest of the United States.

I couldn’t go to sleep after that.  There was too much to think about, so many ideas.  I had to address how to keep the bricks from expanding and falling apart after being removed from the mold or press that manufactured them.  I had to address how and if they would take mortar as a method of joining them together for form a wall.  I also had to figure out the plastic could be isolated from the living area and the exterior elements once the walls were formed.  There was how to form doorways and window openings.  Roofs were another consideration.  And then there was the subsistance level manufacturing if necessary.

That last part, subsistance level manufacturing if necessary, was of critical importance to me.  That’s because I see most of our aid and charity being almost as much of a negative as it is positive once we get beyond emergency relief.  Aid and charity is a horizontal transaction in a world built on vertical transactions.  A lot of the time aid and charity teach help is on the way and you just have to wait for it.  I wanted the bottle brick to be more than that.  I wanted it to be a vertical impetus instead of the traditional horizontal one.

The subsistance level manufacturing is easy.  All I need is a mold or press.  The one I have built in my mind is a three sided affair.  The mold is four inches or so high, width is eight inches or thereabouts, and the length is about two feet even though the finished brick will only be sixteen inches long.  It will be made of steel, simple design.  The compression will be accomplished with leverage.  It will work a little like a tractor jack with its ratcheting action.  You move a lever about five feet long and that movement moves the compression plate an inch or so.  A stop holds the compression plate in the position and the lever is moved once again.  This is done until bottles are compressed into a firm brick about sixteen inches long.

There were two problems with mortar as I saw it.  The first thing was this kind of construction would be perfect for Haiti and Pakistan.  One of the reasons for the horrific destruction in their earthquakes was the mortar fails first and then the walls fall down.  The other was one of the problems with plastic and cement is they don’t bond without special polymers, expensive special polymers.

I had already decided that since I was laminating plastic bottles into a bale then maybe tying it together with wire might be the proven tried and true method.  And since one of the slickest things I had seen was using barbed wire for stabilizing earth bag construction then I could have not only a secure method for attaching the bottle bricks to each other with a system like they use in earth bag.  I would also greatly reduce the potential for damage in an earthquake.  The flexibility inherent in the bale and the plastic along with the slack in the wire method would allow movement and not collapse.

There was one other thing that got me excited about this idea.  That was one of the common methods of building in the places where I could see this being used was the use of plaster.  Plastering the inside walls would separate any bad stuff in a bottle brick from the inhabitants.  Plaster on the outside insure a longer life for the bottle bricks, even though they supposedly have a three to five hundred year life span in a land fill.

The mold is like I described earlier with the addition of two quarter inch in diameter metal rods running parallel with the floor or bottom of the mold and on a center line of the mold.  The rods are to create a pathway for additional tie wires after the bale is removed from the mold.

Here is the way I see it working.  The first bottle is flattened and then placed horizontally in the mold.  First it is pierced with the rods in the middle and then it is slid down the rods to the end of the mold.  The same thing happens with the next bottle except that the bottom of the new bottle is at the open end of the first bottle.  Bottles are flattened and installd repeating this pattern.  The bottoms of the bottles are alternated as they are installed.  When the mold is full of bottles then the manual press is put in place.  The lever ratchets the press plate towards the closed end of the mold.  If the brick isn’t firm the pressure plate can be backed off and more bottles installed.  The compression is repeated until the brick is the right length and density.  At this point the brick is secured with wire similar to the way a bale of straw is secured.  The brick is removed from the mold and additional wire is placed in the two tunnels made by the steel rods.  Ideally there will be short tie wires placed during the building of the brick.  These wires will be placed so they will secure the horizontal wires placed in the tunnels.  Those ties wires will be used to secure the bricks to the stalilizing wires that run on top of each course.

Let’s build a small one room building using the bottle bricks.  We would start with laying out the perimeter, round is better, and two doorways.  The two doorways is important for one reason.  That reason is the purpose of vertical movement by the residents.  As times get better and they want to add a room they already have the doorway for it.

At the corners and edge of the doorways two re-bar pieces are driven into the ground.  This is where the courses stop and start.  Those ties at the ends of the bottle brick are tied to the re-bar uprights.  A short piece of re-bar is driven in at the end of the bottle brick.  The end of the re-bar stake is at the same height as the bottle brick.  The next bottle brick is placed in the same way.  It’s attached to the previous short stake and the new stake driven in at its end the same way.  This is repeated until the next doorway or corner is reached.  Two pieces of heavier gauge wire is placed between the two ends or doorways.  Barbwire would work good for this.  So would nine gauge wire for instance.  The heavy gauge wire is attached to the re-bar posts at each end.  It is then tied to each brick with the short ties that come out of the top of the bottle bricks, the ones that are attached insdie the bottle brick to the wires that go through the middle of the bottle brick.  Once that course is secured then the next course is placed starting with a half bottle brick of course.  These bricks are tied to the wire secured to the course below.

Every course is secured the same way.  It’s secured to the barbwire or heavier gauged wire below with the end tie wires.  It is then attached to the next heavey gauge or barbwire placed on top with the middle ties.

Keep in mind this is work in progress.  There will be changes and we might even find the finished product resembles little of what I’m proposing here.  That’s progress.  It’s also the reason I’ve went public so quickly with it.  I want this to be an open source product.  I want he participants to make it their own.

I have some thoughts that I’d like to share about my bottle brick concept.  One of them is most societies would find this system similar to their traditional methods with the exception of the tie wires and the blocks being made of plastic.

Another thing is the blocks will be light enough that women and children can handle them easily.  If the society allows it then there can be more participants in the building process.  It also means widows and single mothers can build their own housing if their society allows that.

This system offers more resistance to earthquakes than conventional mortar and block construction.  If the roof is made like an igloo then this design would also offer more protection from high winds because it would be more aerodynamic.

This is a beginning.  I can see recycling plants making bottle bricks designed for building retaining walls.  I can see subsidizing bottle bricks by government and industry because it not only recycles plastic waste, it offers opportunity and housing.  I can see bottle bricks being built that would offer armor protection for our troops.  Bullet proof glass is laminated plastic and glass.  A bottle brick is made by laminating you might say plastic and plastic.  Engineers are amazing.  One of them might be able to figure out how to use the bottle brick to stop bullets.

If you wish to to discuss this with me I’m in the book Wylie, Texas.  My email address is my first name at this web address.

I am very interested in critiques.   Consider this open source, a work in progress, dream the dream…

What would be the best thing ever though would be for the bottle brick to become recyclable itself.  When a bottle brick building is demolished the bottle bricks are recycled and used again.

Another aspect that excites me is the idea of it creating commerce.  There could be employment creating the bottle bricks.  The construction could also provide employment.  Procuring the materials, bottles, would also be employment and commerce.  Rooms could be bought and sold, rents could be arranged.  Wealth would be generated at all levels of involvement.

There is one and only one difference between communities as I see it.  Commerce, the business of business is what took Japan from desolation to wealth.  The same thing has happend to China.  Japan is a democracy and  China is communist.  But they both escaped poverty as a nation through commerce.  Suggesting poor countries can’t do the same is ignoring the most obvious thing of all.  We’re people first.

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  • angelcarnivore

    Interesting- though people now are using bottle bricks (filled with either plastic wrap and other non-compostible dry trash, or with dirt, sand, or whatever is on hand) to add strength to the bottle… and I have to wonder about the value as in situ, the bottles are not valuable since they are not being used. As a relatively free building material- to use it both as a way of taking waste out of landfill and putting into useful space, and for providing strength and insulation to structures- I think more than takes up the price of the intial creation as a device to store liquids.