Turning Ocean Plastic into Construction Materials

By Emily Vidovich. Emily has a background in environmental journalism and sustainability and is a member of the George Washington University Class of 2019.

In 2020, Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI) embarked on a two-month expedition to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an accumulation of trash in the Pacific Ocean that is twice the size of Texas. The organization ultimately pulled over 100 tons of plastic, mainly fishing nets, from the ocean. This plastic was then given to partner organizations to be repurposed.

One of OVI’s off-take partners, ByFusion, is a manufacturing company with a non-traditional recycling method that can be applied to all kinds of plastic waste. ByFusion ultimately turned 20 tons of the collected ocean waste into a large-scale building material called a ByBlock, which according to the company is roughly equivalent in size and construction application to the ubiquitous concrete masonry unit. According to a press release, the plastic waste from the ocean cleanup was converted into 4,000 construction-grade building blocks. ByFusion released this product to market at the end of 2020.

The ByBlock: construction-grade building blocks that ByFusion creates from plastic waste

ByFusion’s product not only diverts plastic waste from landfill and gives it a functional, long-term use, it also provides a climate-friendly alternative to concrete. Thanks to its durability and versatility, concrete is the most commonly used building material in the world. One of concrete’s key ingredients is cementover 70 percent of cement used in the United States in 2021 went into concrete mixtures. This is the source of concrete’s carbon-intensivitythe cement industry is one of the leading drivers of climate change, accounting for 8 percent of manmade greenhouse gas emissions. 

Due to concrete’s essential nature and dearth of fully-developed alternatives, decarbonizing the cement industry is one of the most difficult challenges in meeting climate goals for the coming decades. If products like the ByBlock are marketed at scale, they could serve as part of the solution to this challenge by providing an alternative to concrete in some applications, ultimately reducing the demand for this carbon-intensive product.

ByFusion remains optimistic that its product will be able to do just that. In a press release, the company stated that its partnership with OVI, “[closes] the loop on the largest ocean clean up in history by not only removing plastic waste from our oceans but giving it a permanent purpose by converting it to a building material that can be used for modular structures, landscaping, sheds, outdoor spaces, and a number of other applications.”

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