The idea of using bottles to build structures is not a new one, in fact, we’ve seen people using bottles to build homes for well over one hundred years. The overall concept, which is re-using items deemed to be trash or used up, is all about sustainability and using innovation to solve problems. This specific method of using bottles not only rids a community of plastic waste, but also provides a free building material to help create these needed structures. The bottles end up providing necessary support and insulation along with an entire large scale project that a town can come together around. The people living in the area gain a true ownership in the completion of the school along with picking up new skills along the way, no matter the age.

The History of Building with Bottles

Bottle schools
The beginnings of this idea to use bottles were thought up in the 1960’s when the CEO of Heineken, Freddy Heineken, created the Heineken World Bottle (WOBO). He originally embarked on this project trying to avoid his own bottles ending up as trash around the world. While in Curaçao, he saw extreme poverty and noticed how our culture was generating uncountable tons of plastic trash each and every year. He also noted that many places, like the ones he visited in Curaçao, didn’t have systems set up to remove or use the trash, thus it ended up polluting our world’s bodies of water, cities, or the air through burning practices. At this moment, Freddy decided he wanted to design a new bottle that could be up-cycled making a product that could continue its functional use and lengthen its overall lifecycle. Prompted solely by going on this single trip, he decided to formulate a brick shaped bottle to be put to use solving social issues, like the scarcity of building materials for houses around the world.

Freddy decided to invite acclaimed architect John Habraken to help out on the challenge and tasked him with creating the design of a bottle that could safely take the place of bricks while maintaining their useful properties. While devising this product, he made sure the bottles locked together, stacking horizontally and fitting with one another from top to bottoms through their indentations like a jigsaw puzzle. He also saw to it that the sides had interlocking bumps to reinforce the overall building structure. After the initial design was completed, Heineken was ready to test the design for the real world. With a preliminary first try run of 100,000 bottles, they built ten houses and saw that the method gave way to a complete success. The building was sturdy and everything seemed to be in order, minus one issue that turned out to be a deal breaker. This feel good story was shortened due to the fact that consumers ended up preferring the traditional round bottle to the rectangular WOBO, thus ending the project before anything substantial could be achieved or started. However, the overall idea and proof of concept has lived on and we see its effect on modern bottle projects around the world today.

Modern Bottle Building

Bottle schools
In the 21st century, we’ve started to see organizations like Hug it Forward use the simple bottle as a way to provide schools and other buildings for those who lack them. As a grass-roots organization, Hug it Forward not only empowers communities around the world through bottle building but also focuses heavily on educating its residents at the same time. They’ve used a well formulated method to create “bottle schools” which are schools built out of plastic soda bottles stuffed with inorganic trash. Thousands of these bottles are collected and filled to the top with this inorganic trash such as plastic bags, chip packets and polystyrene to make “eco-bricks”. It takes roughly 6,500 eco-bricks to build a two-classroom school. Because these schools are built completely with volunteer labor, this means everyone in the community must participate in order to turn the dream of a bottle school into reality. The whole group of volunteers has ownership as they build the bottle school with their own hands witnessing completion from start to finish. Hug it Forward loves the fact that, “Kids of all ages will be able to say something that no child in a developed country can say: “I built my school.”

Bottle schools
Obviously, the community aspect is just as important as the building the school itself. Throughout the project, towns of under 1,000 people can be seen spending their free time contributing towards the goal of completing a school. Hundreds of kids and parents pack thousands of pounds of inorganic trash into over ten thousand bottles. Small children race each other carrying bags of these eco-bricks up the hills to the build site. Parents help create the structure of the school using eco-bricks and coordinating with other members of the community. Everything happens as a team. Even skilled labor is taught to those helping in a hands-on fashion whether it be from digging foundations and assembling the schools frames to working with cement and roofing practices.

In the end, Hug it Forward’s purpose resonates with what we do here at Build Abroad. Their goals are simple, “Re-using plastic “waste” to build the schools achieves some very important goals: building a school cheaply and efficiently; cleaning the community of trash; and educating youth about recycling and the environmental impact of our non-biodegradable waste – in the community, in the entire region that the school is being built in, and also in the “developed” countries such as the USA where bottle schools have had a lot of publicity and media attention”.

Impressively, over the last seven years they have been able to build a total of 109 schools averaging only $6,500 for each classroom. The costs remain so low compared to the traditional cinder block method due to free materials and volunteer labor.