How to upcycle acrylic paint sustainably by making artist ecobricks

How to upcycle acrylic paint sustainably by making artist ecobricks

Sustainable Studio

Want to be greener but still love painting with acrylic paint? Read on!

Not sure how to upcycle acrylic paint or if that’s even possible? Making art while also making waste just doesn’t sit right with me. I believe there should be little if any environmental downside to our creative expressions. Becoming a zero-waste artist is still a VERY long journey for me but I’ve committed to it and have come across one particular art studio practice, a method of disposing of my acrylic paint, that you may want to adopt if you feel the same way. I’m calling it the artist ecobrick.


First, what is an Ecobrick?


Before we go on, I must say, I didn’t come up with the ecobrick idea. The concept has been around for several years already championed by an organisation called the EcoBrick Exchange. Mine is a specific application for it and it makes for an amazing practice of upcycling acrylic paint, a great thing for any eco-conscious artist or creative.

  • An ecobrick is a repurposed 2L plastic soda bottle. The empty bottle is filled with compressed non-recyclables like small scraps of plastic, cellophane or clingwrap, wrappers or packets for chips or sweets and such like.
  • Once the bottle is as full as can be – it usually weighs about 600g – the cap is screwed on and it is then repurposed in its entirety as a brick for building structures.
  • The idea behind the ecobrick is that it alleviates pressure from landfills as well as making sure that bits of environmentally harmful plastics or degraded microplatics don’t end up in the biosphere.

The bricks are currently mainly used to build structures like play areas for kids, boundary walls, raised beds for gardening and temporary structures as well as development centres and schools within township communities that support the communities living there.

The goal, however, is for these bricks to become a building material used within the greater building industry in order to absorb plastic pollution from within all communities.

How I figured out how to upcycle acylic paint 

Now that you know what an ecobrick is, let me share how I came to making Artist Ecobricks.

The situation
I’ve painted in many mediums and have found with miniatures, I enjoy painting in acrylic paint most. Acrylic paint is essentially pigment suspended in a polymer emulsion. They’re water-soluble but become water-resistant when dry, which means they’re essentially a tinted plastic when dry.

The problem
The problem is not the final painting, because hopefully you never throw the artwork away.
The big shitty problem is the paint palette. You see, because acrylic paint isn’t water-soluble like water paints, the dried paints can’t be washed off of a plastic or wooden artist palette. Most of my life, in any art setting, be that at school or in art classes, acrylic artists are instructed to use cardboard or polystyrene trays that fruit and veg come in as their palette and then when dry, just toss it away. Recycling is already a hefty process. Add a thick goopy layer of water insolvent polymer to it and you’re bound to end up with an environmental shit storm.

The definition of an Artist Ecobrick

An Artist Ecobrick is a plastic bottle that that lives in your art studio or creative space and is stuffed full of all the tiny waste particles and acrylic paint peels from art palettes that come about as a result of your creative process. Ideally, you use this bottle within your own space to build something of value to you.

The unexpected joy that comes from upcycling acrylic paint in this manner

Not only are you keeping your creative waste out of the environment but by containing it in the brick you are simultaneously creating something new with something you once would have discarded mindlessly. There’s something quite humbling of watching it all amass inside your brick, knowing that you’re being as responsible as you currently know how to be while being creative.

What kind of waste should you put in your Artist ecobrick

These are the kinds of things that end up in my Artist ecobrick but I’m sure it would serve to contain much more creative waste.

  • Acrylic paint – because when it dries it is essentially a plastic of sorts
  • Dried glue – also becomes a plastic polymer
  • Small scraps of cut off fabric or canvas trimmings (if you’re not reusing these for stuffing pillows say)
  • Small foam shavings
  • Old sandpaper
  • Tiny glue tubes


A note on the types of bottles you use

Before I made my first ecobrick, I didn’t know that various plastic bottles were better or worse for the recycling system. It turns out that around 68% of all clear PET plastic bottles, at least in South Africa because the industry has been growing so well, are being recycled. South Africa is actually the only developing country in the world that has the technology to recycle a plastic bottle back into a plastic bottle. Clear PET plastic can also be turned into fibre. Recycling PET in this way reduces the use of virgin plastic.

The non clear plastic bottles however – brown, green or yellow – while able to be recycled, are less in demand because they can’t be made back into drink bottles, and their colour makes them less desirable for other projects. These bottles are preferred for ecobricking if you can get your hands on them rather.

If you are using a different shape bottle than those preferred by the Ecobrick Exchange, you can still use these in your own capacity to create Ikea-like DIY small structures like a garden bench or a raised planter box. I plan on creating meditation blocks from mine (covered in a foam and fabric of course)

How to upcycle your acrylic paint in an artist ecobrick

What you need:

  • 1 2l plastic bottle (ideally brown, green or yellow)
  • A thick stick to compress the paint and plastics and glue tubes
  • A small glass pane (you can either use the glass from an old picture frame or buy a piece from your nearest glass fitting store)
  • A flat blade or scraper to scrape off the dried paint

How to go about it:

  • Squeeze your paints directly on the glass sheet. I put white paper underneath to help me see the colours properly
  • Use as a regular palette
  • Leave to dry
  • Once dry hold the blade at an angle and lift the paint off the glass surface
  • Crumple them into a ball and pop it into the brick. Once it gets full you can start using the compression stick to compact your creative waste more

What to do with a full ecobrick?

I’m still filling the very same ecobrick I started at the beginning of my 365 challenge. As I mentioned above, because my bottle is not the ideal round shape required by the Ecobrick Exchange (because I don’t drink sodas I don’t buy these) I’ll be using mine for a home build project.

Full ecobricks of the correct specifications can be dropped off at many drop-off sites around the country.

Another important thing to note on the ecobricking plastic waste collection initiatives

Because of the rise in consciousness towards plastic awareness, many people are taking up waste collection initiatives like ecobricking (myself included). Because the Ecobrick Exchange does such a wonderful job of building structures from these bricks in order to begin shifting the perception that these bricks are valuable building materials, many middle to upper-income homes want to donate their ecobricks to such charitable causes.

These charitable causes often end up being in townships which are already heavily polluted with plastic. While the intention is meant well, in a way this is the wrong direction of plastic flow.



How to better navigate the creating of ecobricks

It’s still better for you to collect your artist or other plastic waste into an ecobrick, preventing the microparticles from ending up in the environment.

It’s even better if you can put those bricks to use in your own community.

The Ecobrick Exchange is working toward shifting this flow of plastic from more affluent to environmentally fragile communities in the following two ways:

1. School environmental awareness program

  • Education around plastic pollution is vital especially in remote and polluted areas.
  • Practical activities illustrate how all types of waste can be made into valuable resources if appropriate systems are in place.

2. Creating demand within the construction industry

  • When large construction projects order ecobricks we commission our participating schools to collect.
  • In return, the participating learners and their families enjoy extra income opportunities.


I hope this article gave you some helpful tips on how to upcycle your acrylic paint and other wasteful art materials and also inspires you to start ecobricking in your studio. If you’re still with me way down here, thank you for taking the time to read this far.

Please share this article with any other artists you think would benefit from an eco practice to accompany their creative practice.