Changing the world with a plastic bottle

Illac Diaz had just finished his studies in urban planning in the USA and had been back in the Philippines for just a few weeks when a supertyphoon hit with devastating impacts.

Like so many others, he began looking to see what he could do to help. Then he saw a huge pile of discarded plastic bottles – and there was mud – so volunteers began filling up the bottles with mud and topping them with a small patch of cement. Tied together with chicken wire, these bricks built a school.

But it was going to be dark inside if the walls were entirely made from mud bricks, so someone suggested inserting clear plastic bottles where there normally would be windows. And they got a pile of discarded glass bottles from a gin distiller. It was a triumph of using local materials and local ingenuity to help with rebuilding.

It is a desire that has been strong in Illac from the beginning, and it is a desire that evokes cheers from crowds he speaks to in India – ‘we can do this for ourselves, keep the money in our communities, create jobs’. It is a ‘south-south’ approach to disaster aid. He points out that when international aid agencies get involved in helping, they often send things that can’t be repaired locally and the value of their donation is reduced because the logistics to get it to a disaster area is so expensive. Local groups, on the other hand, must work with what’s available, and that drives frugal innovation.

He moved on from the bottle schools to seeing what else plastic bottles could be used for, and that was when he was introduced to the idea of Liter of Light. You’ve probably seen a video – a discarded litre plastic bottle is filled with water and a little bleach and inserted through a hole in the metal roof. It is as bright as an electric light bulb, lighting up the entire house; it’s cheap; it doesn’t heat up; and it lasts for a decade.

Then he encouraged women’s groups to make the lights, and they did so. And then they discovered that they could sell them, to raise money for their work. And not long after that, he began to show the women how to make solar-powered litres of light.

Liter of Light photo.

And then they moved on to street lights, which use a wifi link to connect people locally via a simple app.

Through a network of partnerships around the world, Liter of Light volunteers teach marginalized communities how to use recycled plastic bottles and locally sourced materials to illuminate their homes, businesses, and streets. Liter of Light has installed more than 350,000 bottle lights in more than 15 countries and taught green skills to empower grassroots entrepreneurs at every stop.

Liter of Light’s open source technology has been recognized by the UN and adopted for use in some UNHCR camps.

An amazing innovator, Iliac and his organization have won many awards. In 2016, Liter of Light won the St. Andrews Prize for the Environment, and the 2014-2015 World Habitat Award. He is the first Filipino to win the prestigious Zayed Future Energy Prize, considered to be the Nobel Prize for clean energy, in 2015. He was declared an Association of Southeast Asian Nations champion, one of the Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum in 2008 and one of Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World by the Jaycees International.


Liter of Light: Lighting up the Developing World and Shining a Light on Climate Change. Zayed Sustainability Prize. 

Liter of Light’s Illac Diaz hailed ASEAN Champion. Sep. 11, 2020, Light It Forward.

Genius of the Water Lamp, TED Talk Rio20.

How can plastic bottles light a million homes? TEDx Gateway, Mumbai, India, Nov. 2011

Wealth from waste. TEDx ChristUniversity, Bangalore, Indian, Nov. 2012

Lighting up the world a litre at a time. TEDx Manila,

Old plastic bottles have now been used to light up more than 850,000 homes around the world. Tech Insider.

How to make a litre of light