I've never touched so many feet in one day.
Odd as it may seem, over 30 student volunteers came out one Saturday afternoon to build the South's first earthbench made from cob and bottle bricks at Mill Creek High School in celebration of America Recycles Day with the Peace on Earthbench Movement and Greening Forward, two international youth-driven organizations.
Following natural building techniques, earthbenches are made with cob, which is a natural concrete-like mixture of sand, clay, and water. In order to mix the cob, volunteers had to take off their shoes and socks, roll up their jeans, and jump in. Additionally, we used bottle bricks, which are water and soft drink bottles that are simply filled with plastics such as shopping bags and packaging materials and repurposed into a building material that becomes the backbone of earthbenches. Also, unrecyclable and difficult things to recycle such as wax paper and Styrofoam were added to our bottle bricks.
The idea to build earthbenches all over the world is driven by a recent UC Davis student, Brennan Bird, who started a not-for-profit organization, Peace On Earthbench Movement (P.O.E.M.). As a part of his studies at UC Davis, Brennan investigated the nature of trash. He began saving all the trash he consumed for one year in his dorm while coming up with creative ways to reduce his waste. He adapted ideas from the earthship designs and natural builders across the world and created what he called an earthbench, which would permanently repurpose trash into a creative space that could bring the entire community together.
Although most of the volunteers working on this project are too young to imagine a day where everything came bottled in glass just as few as 50 years ago, we have come to live in a world where plastics are ubiquitous. I remember when we were stuffing the plastic bottle bricks and how it wasn't hard to find some kind of plastic material we could stuff the bottles with.
Before making earthbenches, Brennan shared some insight into how bad our plastics pollution problem is on our planet. Plastic takes a thousand years to photodegrade (it doesn't biodegrade); therefore, the first plastic piece ever created is still on our planet. This is why plastic constitutes approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean's surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. Moreover, when plastic does photogdegrade, it breaks into small pieces that are often mistaken for food by marine and terrestrial wildlife. The plastics we are creating today are going to be problems we are going to have to deal with far into the future, but by reducing our plastic consumption today we can still make a big impact.
Some students asked, "Why not recycle these bottles?" Although recycling plastics is OK, it does not solve the root problem: consumption. Plastics are produced already using fossil fuels, mainly petroleum, and once they are created they are more likely to become litter than be recycled because their recycling rates are dismal. Although each plastic is labeled with a number 1-7 for recycling organization, most municipalities will only accept 1 and 2.
Sometimes, our plastics in the United State are shipped to Asian countries where they can be burned to be made into new plastics. This process is energy-intensive and polluting. We encourage that people simply reduce, reuse and recycle, but exactly in that order.
We were lucky to have worked alongside Rhonda Zambo, Mill Creek's Environmental Science teacher. She brought her classes -- all 120 students -- down to help build the bench during the school day. Mrs. Zambo was right there with her students as she jumped into the cob and promised she wouldn't make her students do anything that she wouldn't do. I stepped outside my comfort zone as we got dirty and had a fun time doing it.
The earthbench has served its purpose already because so many questions have been asked about what we were doing and why we were doing this. Students and the community are learning that we have a global problem -- an addiction to plastics -- and we're going to have to come up with solutions to repurposing this waste. Brennan engaged in the first conversation on the bench and the bench was so powerful to that one student that he promised to think differently about waste and Brennan encouraged him insofar that the student decided to join the Mill Creek Environmental Club for a viewing of "Bag It," a documentary on plastic pollution. Through this project, a handful of students are also considering membership to the Mill Creek Environmental Club.
The Mill Creek High School Earthbench is there to last as a symbol of what a community can do when it works together towards environmental sustainability. The earthbench - all three tons of it - is expected to withstand many decades to come.
Follow Charles on Twitter at @corgbon.