Trash Versus Treasure

Guatemala’s abundant natural beauty is tragically blemished by the ubiquitous litter strewn across its hills, volcanoes, forests, beaches and lakes. Trash management is a national problem here. In the capital city, there is no large-scale recycling program other than workers who comb through the immense city landfill, sorting recyclables from the tons of trash created daily by three million people. Even in the most remote rural villages, candy wrappers, chip bags, and soda bottles mar the landscape due to environmental miseducation and the lack of a municipal trash collection system. People commonly burn huge heaps of trash, emitting dangerous toxins into the air. Because many rural children need to work to contribute to the family income, only 44 percent attend school. Over three-quarters of the national population lives below the poverty line with less than $2 per day, and nearly all of the rural, indigenous communities consist of shanty homes and decrepit buildings.

Fortunately, there is some good news on the horizon. A powerful new solution is beginning to tackle many of these problems in rural Guatemala. Bottle schools. That is, schools constructed using bottle bricks, which are plastic drinking bottles rinsed out and stuffed to the brim with inorganic trash. The idea is simple: a frame is built out of metal, wood or bamboo; bottle-bricks are placed between chicken wire; a few layers of cement are spread on top of the bottles; the roof is corrugated tin. Colored glass bottles make for lovely skylights and add character to the building. Once they’re painted, you’d never know the walls were full of bottles and trash.

A bottle school project goes beyond simply providing a no-strings-attached donation or a random charity for poor community members. At its core is individual empowerment (“I can choose to reuse this plastic instead of throwing it away. I can make a difference.”) and community ownership (“We are taking responsibility for our town’s litter problem and building a school while we’re at it!”).

This creative approach utilizes inexpensive, sustainable building methods. The labor itself is manual, physically grueling, and time-consuming. During the construction process, a bottle school project can provide dozens of individuals with direly needed employment and income; once finished, the school will serve as a foundation and location for higher learning through vocational training and academic study, which will ultimately lead to job-creation and economic development for the community.

The mathematics of trash reduction is astonishing. Each bottle brick packs an average of three pounds of plastic, and it takes about 7,000 bottles to build a 10-by-20 meter building. That means one bottle building takes 21,000 pounds of trash off the streets of the town! And the bottle-brick method cuts thousands off traditional building budgets.

Regardless of whether they live in the city or the campo, children, as well as adults, can immediately begin reusing trash to build schools. Bottle schools give students visual proof of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ Students of all ages at the American School of Guatemala are learning about waste management and eco-friendly building and contributing by making plastic bricks which are then donated to a bottle school project. It’s a mutually beneficial scenario. Impoverished rural students get new schools; privileged students develop an awareness that trash does not just “go away” and earn the intrinsic reward of consciously reusing garbage for good.

Peace Corps volunteer Tony Brindisi visited our school on Earth Day and spoke to students about his environmental work in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. He describes bottle schools as “the quintessential Peace Corps project,” because they address three different (though overlapping) needs at once: the dire need for trash and litter management, the need for improved village infrastructure, and, the need for solid education for local villagers about the serious environmental consequences of unchecked litter and pollution. Armed with their new knowledge and skills, children and adults alike are inspired to collect thousands upon thousands of bottle bricks and take responsibility for the cleanliness of their community. Everyone gets involved and the results are tangible.

Another NGO called Long Way Home also exemplifies the benefits of this type of sustainable community development. After his two-year Peace Corps assignment ended in 2005, Matt Paneitz, known as “Mateo” by everyone in town, stayed in Comalapa, a pueblo two hours west of Guatemala City, and spearheaded the creation of a community park with an organic garden, a soccer field, and a basketball court. To gain admission to the park, people must bring one plastic bottle brick or Q3.00 (about $0.50). When the community members came to him looking for help building a school, Mateo quickly discovered that traditional construction methods and materials would be cost-prohibitive. In his search for alternatives, he discovered the innovative construction techniques that were first employed in the early 1970s “Earthships,” sustainable, off-the-grid homes built into hillsides in New Mexico. In addition to using bottle bricks, Long Way Home builds thick outer walls by stacking old tires packed with dirt and “Earth bags,” woven plastic sacks stuffed with dirt.

Now, Long Way Home is employing local citizens and teaching them how to build sustainably. Three large vocational classrooms where students will learn about and practice alternative construction techniques and methods are now under construction. Eight primary school classrooms, an administration building, and a cafeteria are also in the works. The school will be open for enrollment beginning in January 2012; construction will be complete in 2014. The remaining work will cost approximately $100,000 for labor and materials. That means you could sponsor the completion of an entire classroom for $5,000. Quite the bargain!

For concerned citizens in the United States, collecting bottle bricks to ship to Guatemala is not cost-effective once shipping costs are factored in. But if you’re inspired by the outside-the-box, multifaceted solutions offered by bottle schools, both Long Way Home and the aforementioned Peace Corps project (which works in partnership with non-profit Hug It Forward), gladly accept donations. A little bit goes a long way. Just $8 buys a 90-pound bag of cement, and $25 is enough for a truckload of sand.

Environmental problems like pollution and trash management are daunting, but we must start to change at the personal level before any significant societal change can occur. Any and every effort helps.

One thought on “Trash Versus Treasure

  1. Great article! I just wanted to let readers know that Hug It Forward’s web site is http://www.hugitforward.com where you can read more about bottle school projects.

    We rely entirely on donations to fund these projects, and your money goes a long way! Just $8 will buy a 90lb bag of cement, or $25 will buy a truckload of sand. You can donate using Paypal via our web site, or send a check. Or sign up on our web site to track your hugs around the world and stay in touch about future projects!

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