Bottle schools solve trash problems while creating affordable schools in Central America

Around the world, discarded plastic bottles and non-biodegradable trash are being turned into ‘eco-blocks’ that dramatically reduce the costs of building a school, and thus effectively address several problems at the same time. The ‘eco-block’ was developed in Guatemala in 2005 by the Pura Vida ecological movement as part of a a pilot project to solve the trash problem in San Marcos la Laguna village. Rural villagers are encouraged to compact loose, clean and dry household waste into plastic bottles, packing it down with a stick and sealing it in with the bottle cap, thus dealing with the two most common forms of household waste by turning it into a useful building material..

Four years later, in another village in Guatemala, former Peace Corps volunteer Laura Kutner was asked to help find funding for two classrooms in the elementary school in which she worked in Granados, a village of 13,860 people. She turned to ‘eco-blocks’ as the solution. "I was hanging out with my students at recess," Kutner recalled, "and I realized the bottle of soda I was drinking was the exact width of the metal frames that made up the existing walls."

Hundreds of students, parents and volunteers spent weeks collecting nearly 8,000 bottles. Stuffed full of 2,053 pounds of inorganic waste, the bottles were encased in chicken wire and covered with a few layers of cement, thus providing cost-efficient and eco-friendly insulation for the classroom's walls. "They stay cooler than traditionally built schools and have even inspired new community initiatives to find everyday solutions to trash management," Kutner said. Almost 300 children and youth attend the school, which serves students from all over the 96 square mile municipality.


Uploaded to YouTube by HUGitForward on Nov 4, 2010


At about the same time, a Phoenix real estate investor named Zach Balle, seeking more meaning in his life, booked a flight to Guatemala and found himself in a small village where children studied outdoors. He decided he wanted to help them build a school where children could study even when it was raining – but the price tag for building schools from concrete was very high. Seeking answers, he found himself talking to Kutner, who told him about the eco-brick construction method. He and a friend helped out with the construction and then founded an NGO called Hug it Forward to build more eco-friendly schools across Central America. 

Since 2009, Hug It Forward has supported the construction of 19 schools at an average cost of $5,000 US per classroom.  Bottle school #19, in Pachay in San Martin Jilotepeque, Chimaltenango, was officially opened on July 23, 2012, in a huge community celebration. In May 2012, they opened their first bottle school built outside Guatemala – this one in El Salvador. Currently Hug It Forward is working on three more schools. and two more are in the planning stages

Bottle schools are built using tried and tested post and beam construction. The foundations, columns and beams are made from concrete reinforced with iron. The difference with traditional construction is that instead of cinder-blocks or bricks, the walls are made using “eco-bricks”.

In order to share this knowledge more widely around the world, Hug it Forward provides instructions to help communities build their own bottle schools, both a simple guide on their website and a more detailed instructional wiki.

So many people in North America, hearing the story of the bottle schools, wanted to help with building that Hug it Forward now partners with Serve The World Today to organize one week voluntourism building trips.

The bottle school concept seems to have caught on elsewhere in the world, too. In the Philippines, the non-profit My Shelter Foundation is using plastic bottles filled with adobe to build eco-friendly and disaster-resistant schools. Its bottle schools were inspired by the Spanish-style adobe churches and buildings that incorporated glass bottles in Turkey and Mexico, which have all withstood the test of time. "

The process begins with collecting 1.5 to 2-litre plastic bottles, commonly soda bottles that are sourced from restaurants and hotels. The bottles are filled with liquefied adobe, allowed to dry for 12 hours, and then are stacked neatly to form walls, with cement holding the bottles in place to make the wall sturdier. It takes roughly 5,000 bottles to complete one classroom. In the finished classroom, builders insert small holes and PVC pipes in between the bottle brick walls that serve as air vents.


This story was prepared from a variety of sources, including the Pura Vida website, the Hug It Forward bottle school website, an article about Hug it Forward published in the Oprah Magazine, the Bottle School wiki (which shows step by step how to build a bottle school),  an April 2011 PBS News Hour story entitled Discarded bottles put to new use in schools, and a March 2011 story by Kara Santos entitled Philippines' Bottle School Breaking New Ground (IPS).  In 2011, Laura Kutner demonstrated the eco block construction method at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.


The picture on the right shows the La Gloria school - here is its story, as adapted from the Hug it Forward website.

La Gloria, the site of Hug It Forward’s eleventh bottle school, is a small agricultural village in the remote cloud forests of Quiche, an area without electricity or running water that was only accessible by airplane until 2007 when the government built a small one-lane dirt road. The road meant that the community began to develop a trash problem – one that threatened the delicate cloud forest full of wildlife.

The Guatemalan government gave the land in the Zona Reina to several different indigenous groups who were displaced during the civil war. As a result the area is populated by four different Mayan cultures living in harmony; Kiché, Qéqchi, Pokomchi, and Ixil. Being displaced by war meant most adults had no chance to attend school. In 2009, the community raised its own funds to build a small three-room middle school, with wood walls, aluminum roof and dirt floor. But by 2011, the school was too small and the building was no longer adequate.

With the help of Peace Corps volunteer Hilary Kilpatric, the community came to Hug It Forward with the hope that they could build a three-room schoolhouse, including an office and a library, to accommodate their 90 students.  They had already begun collecting bottles. The school was inaugurated in August 2011, and now children in the area have the opportunity to continue their education through middle school.