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Susanne Heisse is one of those rare people who is both a big dreamer, and very practical. She was born in East Germany in 1961 and was imprisoned there for a year when she was 19 for trying to escape. Freed via a prisoner exchange, she made her way, eventually, to one of the most beautiful spots in Guatemala – San Marcos la Laguna, on the shores of Lake Atitlan.
It’s beautiful, but very poor – and when she arrived there, it wasn’t long before she noticed the massive garbage pile that marred the village and often polluted the lake water. And that led her to a very simple, but profound, discovery – that by putting dry garbage into discarded plastic bottles, one could build buildings even as the community was cleaned up. She called these stuffed plastic bottles ‘eco-blocks’ or eco-bricks, and they have effectively started a revolution in building and waste management in many low income communities.
It was quite a different approach to the one novelist Joyce Maynard often observed during her visits to San Marcos. “Over the months I lived there, I’d watch a familiar pattern take place. Some idealistic young traveler from North America, passing through, would notice the problem of ugly plastic bottles and empty chips packages, lying on the ground and decide to do something about it. They’d spend a few days picking up trash, or more likely, paying indigenous children to do so. They might even purchase trash cans for the village. Then they’d motor off to their destination–with a sense of accomplishment, no doubt, for having cleaned things up. But oblivious to the larger problem: Nobody was emptying those nice new trash receptacles, or if they did, they had nowhere to dump them, besides some giant pile of garbage, on the side of the mountain, that only kept growing.”
By contrast, Susanne saw an opportunity to solve a range of problems all at once by using trash as its own container – cleaning up the village, recycling plastic, building with what is available, and educating children and villagers about ecology and nutrition. “Like a Mayan person,” Maynard explained, “she recognized that every single material available in a place as poor as that one can and should be put to practical use.”
Pura Vida, her NGO, would give children school supplies in exchange for eco-blocks – plastic bottles stuffed with discarded plastic wrappers, plastic bags, and paper waste. The eco-bricks, embedded in adobe structures, became a building material, and that was especially important to villagers when they had to rebuild after hurricane damage in 2005. Among all their other advantages, ecobricks are safer in earthquakes.
“Her tenacity and endurance – like that of the Mayan people alongside whom she works — have produced the tangible effect of making the village of San Marcos much cleaner. But she has accomplished the biggest kind of change: she has changed the way people look at the products they consume, and what they do with them. And what they choose to put into their bodies, and their soil.”
Not only did it change the village, but the idea spread widely via Peace Corps and NGO volunteers who saw it in action.
An American NGO, Hug It Forward, began using the technique to build what it called ‘bottle schools’ in Latin America, with a particular focus on Guatemala. Over the past 11 years, it has completed 131 projects, building 323 classrooms at an average cost of $7,000 US per classroom.
The classrooms use post and beam construction, with the ecobricks serving as insulation. Foundations, columns and beams are made from concrete reinforced with rebar. “As a result, our projects are much cheaper to build when compared to the more traditional building methods and materials, they work to clean up the environment, provide the space for real discussion about local environmental obstacles, and involve the entire community in their construction, resulting in a sense of pride and ownership,” Hug It Forward explains.
Projects are educational in many ways – not only does the community gain a classroom, but entire communities learn about trash management and environmental protection, and volunteers of all ages from North American communities learn more about Latin America.
Boise residents Tom and Pam Rybus, who have made four trips to Guatemala to help build bottle schools, see the schools as answers for both now and the long term. “Guatemala needs thousands of schools. Why? In 1996 Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war made worse by U.S. intervention. It occurred mainly in Mayan rural areas, leaving the countryside with uneducated, unskilled subsistence farmers and few school buildings. Work is scarce, and people are paid poorly ($2-$7 per day). Education is problematic. Poverty and corruption leave people living with dirt floors, bad water, and no plumbing, health care or electricity. Other Central American countries share similar histories. With little hope or prospects the pull to the U.S. is strong. Every community where we have worked has family members who have worked or are working in America.”
“We recount our experiences in Guatemala for several reasons: to show that America was complicit in this immigration, to explain the conditions that underlie it, and to argue that as a nation and as individuals, we have a responsibility not just to stop immigrants looking to enter illegally at the border, but to reduce the conditions that attract people here.”
In Cambodia, near the tourist destination of Siem Reap, a woman who had heard about Pura Vida built a bottle school in which 411 students from grades 1 to 10 learn English to prepare them for the better-paid tourism jobs. (They also attend normal school.) Local villages don’t use smaller plastic bottles so she asked local hotels to donate the bottles left by tourists; local residents who packed the bottles with plastic trash could exchange ecobricks for school materials, bottles of oil, and even bicycles.
Five years ago, Inhabitat reported that an entire ecobrick village was under construction in Panama. The Plastic Bottle Village uses millions of plastic bottles that Canadian Robert Bezeau collected in his plastic recycling business in Bocas Del Toro.
In Greyton, South Africa, ecobricks are the centre of an annual Trash to Treasure community festival. “EcoBricks are made and exchanged for prizes donated by local stores, and new buildings are created with them. Already a composting toilet block has been built, and future plans include a kitchen, shower stalls and even on-site accommodation. An outdoor classroom is currently nearing completion, with each wall having been built by a different local school.”
Port Elizabeth architect Ian Domisse was so inspired by the possibilities of ecobricks that he quit his job and set himself up as an ecobrick architect. Last year, the EcoBrick Exchange he’s involved in contributed 12,000 ecobricks to build a custom-designed green commercial building in Cape Town – believed to be one of the world’s first commercial buildings to use the concept.
So ecobricks have grown from one woman’s idea in rural Guatemala to become “a globally disruptive innovative, sustainable solution”, says Waste-Aid, because “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.”
“EcoBricks represent a different approach to waste management,” the Guardian noted in 2014. “Plastics recycling is an energy intensive, polluting business, often involving long transportation distances. How might it be to find alternative uses for them at the local scale? Construction is one obvious approach. EcoBricks turn waste into a highly insulating, robust, affordable, building material, which simultaneously tackles problems of unemployment, waste and lack of housing. They can be used vertically as infill in timber-frame building systems, or horizontally, where they are mortared together with clay or cement.”
The possibilities are, as they say, endless.