Building Schools With Recycled Plastic Bottles

Community development initiatives rarely solve problems overnight. It’s a hard realization to come to, but the nature of the field is so large in scope, population size, and unproved theories that goals are hard to meet, let alone create. So it’s refreshing to come across a project like Hug It Forward’s bottle schools. The solution is ingenious in its simplicity — it takes two of the pressing issues in Guatemala, education and the environment, and presents a solution that’s rapidly adaptable and easily incentivized.

Take an empty plastic bottle, stuff it to the brim with inorganic refuse like paper and plastic, and you’ve made your very own eco-brick. Now collect 13,000 more and you’re ready to build your very own school. Local masons use the bottles in place of cinder blocks, wrapping them in chicken wire and coating the outside with a plaster of concrete. They’re as structurally sound as traditional building methods, cheaper, and remove hundreds of pounds of trash from local watersheds.

School building is currently prohibitive in communities where the average income is less than $2 per day. In addition, most communities burn their trash, this offers a green solution to waste disposal, a positive result they can see. The tangible solutions and relatively short-term gratification that result from bottle projects sprouting up all across Guatemala are innumerable; the project cleans up neighborhoods and drinking water sources, teaches environmental awareness, fosters community leadership, imparts new technical building skills, and provide a space new students and teachers can call their own.

Here in Chaquijya, Manna Project is still in the middle of phase one: environmental education and bottle stuffing. It’s a funny thing to teach a roomful of bewildered Mayan men and women how to stuff plastic bottles with trash because a school built from trash-filled bottles is hard to imagine. So we’re trying a broad approach: We’ve recruited the local community leaders (COCODES), the primary and pre-schools, a local microfinance organization, and a slew of friends we’ve made along the way to help spread the word.

We recently installed trashcans along the main road to make trash collection easier, and next month we will begin our bottle stuffing competition between 3rd through 6th graders to get the ball rolling in two separate elementary schools.  Along the way, we’re seeing the community come together on the project.

Now we realize the trash collection for this project is a temporary solution to Guatemala’s general waste management problems, but it’s a start, and it highlights the long-term positives of responsible trash policies. The timeline is long, but the change is real. The development world needs more projects like these: creative, holistic, and community-led. Therein killing at least two birds with one stuffed bottle.

For more examples of bottle schools in Guatemala and other environmental projects, check out Pura Vida Atitlan.

Photo courtesy of Manna Project International
NOTE: This is a guest post from Dana Zichlin, the Country Director of Manna Project: Guatemala.


jessica w.
jessica w7 years ago


Sarah M.
Sarah M7 years ago

I have loved the idea of this type of construction ever since I heard of it a few years back as a way of building more eco-friendly homes. The technique is slightly different in this case, but still great.

Heenal R.
Heenal R.7 years ago

Hug It Forward bottle schools have been shortlisted in the Best New Charity and Small Charity of the Year categories in the 3rd Annual Stay Classy Awards - the nonprofit equivalent of the Emmy's or the Oscar's!

Thank you to everybody who voted for us to get this far. We're excited about the Awards Ceremony this Saturday in San Diego!

Find out more at

Past Member
Past Member 7 years ago

The facts and importance of recycling has been in existance for many years in certain countries especially the "Adobe" construction method. More important so is that "we are still manufacturing items with bad carbon foot prints and we are still creating millions of tons of rubble with no "after life" use. For now, at least we have found some purposeful uses for "plastic bottles". It seems as if a handful of certain professions do care about the well being of Mother Earth. Building Material Manufacturers, Builders and Architects have learned to recycle and re-use. Insulation used in cavity walls and UV plastic roof tiles are two known products manufactured from "plastic bottles" thus far. We need to consider either replacing "baby diapers" and/or need to find a way to recycle "diapers". These have a major impact on the environment and we need to eliminate the problem as soon as possible.

Dana W.
Dana W7 years ago

Great idea although the "bricks" sound awfully lightweight. Maybe they can add sand, pebbles or other heavier materials inside the bottles.

Jay D.
J Digiandomenico7 years ago


-- -7 years ago


Elizabeth O.
.7 years ago

Good idea.

wizzy wizard
wiz wi7 years ago

dont build in a very hot it will melt

Carole K.
Carole K7 years ago

Sometimes, contrary to popular belief, it IS good to "keep things bottled up". They are builing help & hope out of throw away material. How more environmental can you get!?!?