School in a Bottle

In the mountainous village of Granados in central Guatemala, Peace Corps volunteer Laura Kutner came up with a way to solve several problems at once – the need for more classrooms, the shortage of building materials, and the abundance of plastic trash littering the ground.

Kutner rallied the community of roughly 860 people living in the village and surrounding area and together they collected more than 4,000 discarded plastic soda bottles. From there, students and volunteers used sticks and hands to cram the plastic bottles with more plastic — used bags, packaging and grocery sacks – to give the containers heft and form, then stacked them like bricks held in place by chicken wire, and “stuccoed” them with a cement-sand mixture.

Kutner says her inspiration came from a Guatemalan group called Pura Vida, which created bottle-filled “eco-block” construction material.

In Granados, villagers not only gained a new schoolhouse, they became acutely aware of how much non-biodegradable trash they produced. One man even began collecting aluminum cans and hauling them to a recycling center four hours away.

As commendable as this effort is, the challenge of dealing with plastic garbage, which takes more than 200 years to break down, is huge. Statistics show that the U.S. alone produces more than 25 million tons of plastic per year and about 8% of the world’s oil consumption is used to manufacture plastics of all types. The belief that plastic garbage is a problem faced by cities in developed countries is just urban myth; it accumulates in the most remote rural areas too.