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This story starts with one elderly woman in rural Guatemala. Too poor to build her home with bricks, she decided to use the plastic trash her village was fast filling up with.

Using a twig, she started stuffing plastic trash into used water bottles. Each filled bottle became a ‘brick’, and slowly but surely, the lone woman built her home.

Susanna Heisse, a blossoming environmental activist, saw what the elderly woman was doing, and immediately realised the potential of this building technique for solving a number of challenges faced by the local community:

1. Plastic waste accumulating in open dumps, polluting “the most beautiful lake in the world”.
2. People had little understanding of the fact that plastic does not naturally break down.
3. A lack of environmental or health awareness within the community was leading to sickness and disease.

The most vital message that Susanna could put across about the plastic packaging waste? “This is not a leaf. It will not rot. It will stay here for hundreds of years. We need to do something different.”

And so, in the village of San Marco La Laguna, near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Pura Vida Atitlan and the eco-block (sometimes called ecobrick) were born.

Eco-BlockImage: puravidaatitlan.org

I’m a waste management pro on holiday in Cambodia. Despite friends encouraging me to stop thinking about trash, to kick back and just enjoy my break… of course that was always going to be impossible. We found a school made out of ecobricks near Siem Reap and contacted HUSK, run by Fiona Jaensch and her husband Anthony, owners of the local tour company Beyond Unique, to take a look.

A half hour ride out of town in the back of a tuktuk down a dusty and bumpy track, we arrived at the complex of buildings that is the HUSK Bottle School, comprising three classrooms, a library and a compost toilet block.

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411 students, from grades 1 to 10 attend English lessons here, supplementing their normal schooling (attending general school is a prerequisite). The aim is to prepare young people for the better paid jobs in the growing hospitality sector of Siem Reap, close to Cambodia’s main tourist draw of the Angkor temple complex.

Fiona heard about the Pura Vida technique, accessed the Bottle Schools Manual, and started collecting water bottles. Since local villagers don’t use the smaller bottles (20 litre refillables are much more affordable), Fiona asked local hotels – of which there are plenty – to donate the bottles left by tourists instead.

Incentives were arranged to encourage the local residents to pack the bottles with plastic trash and deliver them to the school. Filled ecobricks could be exchanged for school materials, bottles of oil, and even bicycles.

People had no previous environmental education about the hazards of plastic pollution or burning plastics, and so the material was plentiful in the local surroundings. I was reminded of Susanna Heisse’s message in Guatemala: “This not a leaf. It will not rot.”

Cambodia’s war-ravaged past means the population is very young. Added to that, plastic is a relative newcomer in society. People simply aren’t aware that plastics in the environment cause problems, and so much of Fiona’s time has also been spent on environmental awareness. (Plastic bags aren’t just a problem in the countryside. Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh recently hosted a UNESCO campaign “Make my country plastic bag free” in an attempt to encourage people back to natural, biodegradable packaging.)

They found that the plastic trash from a typical 20 litre waste basket, squashed down with a stick, was enough to fill a 250ml plastic bottle.

The school was built using 100,000 bottles.

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Once enough ecobricks have been collected, the construction technique is relatively straightforward. A traditional wooden stud framework is built, with chicken wire used on the front and back of each panel to hold the bottles in place. (It’s important to use the same size bottles throughout to make stacking easier.) Once complete, the wall is finished with cement render – leaving some ‘honesty windows’ for people to see that it’s really, honestly, made out of plastic trash!

Helping families keep their children in school was another challenge. With little income, pressure would often fall upon the children to enter into construction jobs. So phase 2 of the HUSK initiative has been to build another workshop (using a further 15,000 bottles) in which 15 local women are learning to sew, and making toys to sell. Following an uncertain start with a few brave pioneers, their success led to 60 women applying for just 5 positions.

We visited the school and workshop in the early afternoon in dry season. It was a scorching hot day, and yet all of the buildings – made from little more than plastic trash – offered cool, comfortable sanctuary.

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Fiona was really interested in the work of WasteAid UK, having downloaded the factsheets from our new website, and is now planning to trial making plastic paving tiles from plastic wrap, and charcoal briquettes from dry leaves. The plastic paving tiles may offer entrepreneurial opportunities for the men of the village, and Fiona is hopeful that the projects will help improve living conditions through employment – and a cleaner environment.

We wish Fiona and all the people at HUSK in Cambodia all the very best, and look forward to helping out however we can with their future waste to livelihoods projects.

All of these issues – plastic waste accumulating in the environment, a lack of waste collection services, little environmental awareness, and low economic activity – are shared by communities on every continent. Waste management on small islands is of particular concern, since there is typically no system for removing packaging waste from islands, so it either gets dumped in or by the sea, or burned.

Ecobricks may offer a simple, scalable solution to plastic waste, particularly on islands popular with tourists where the smaller bottles are plentiful. This technique seems to offer a lot of potential for resolving multiple issues within communities and societies. Building with ecobricks is cheaper, cleans the environment, raises awareness and involves everyone in the community.

The concept is only around 10 years old, yet its genius is spreading rapidly. A globally disruptive, innovative, sustainable solution, that all started with one woman in rural Guatemala.

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NEWSFLASH: World’s first Plastic Bottle Village to recycle over a million PET bottles 

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You can watch the CNN video of the Pura Vida story here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NN9UYTFRqow

As ever, Wikipedia also provides some useful background info: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eco-brick

There’s a one minute video explaining how to get started here: http://www.ecobricks.org/how-to-make-ecobricks/

For comprehensive instructions and valuable practical advice on building your own building from plastic bottles, visit: http://bottleschools.org/ (request the pdf)

Photo credits: David Leeke