Community members assemble eco-bricks, where empty bottles are filled with trash.

By Jennifer O’Riordan

Ever looked at an empty plastic soda bottle as you’re throwing it away and wondered where they all end up? In Guatemala, they may become a sturdy wall in a new school.

Students, teachers and parents in the northern municipality of Raxruhá joined an innovative program that creates “eco-bricks,” in which plastic water and soda bottles are filled with inorganic plastic trash that can be used to create a variety of structures, from trashcans to classrooms.

These schools have been so successful in the program — called Educational Program for Environmental Protection and Awareness — that they were recognized for their commitment on June 20, 2011.

The program has taken off in over 30 urban and rural schools within the Raxruhá municipality, and it is raising awareness about environmental protection among some 3,200 students.

“It is an initiative with a direct impact on the improvement of environmental conditions both in the schools and their environs,” says Rony Mejia, Director of Counterpart International’s Community Tourism Alliance in Guatemala.

Counterpart co-hosted the awards ceremony as part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Community Tourism Alliance project, which encourages schools and communities to reduce, reuse and recycle through a combination of environmental education and solid waste management activities,.

How eco-bricks work

In addition to waste separation techniques and how-to make compost, participants also learn how to build trashcans, small-scale landfills, restrooms and even classrooms using the innovative eco-bricks technique.

“In the beginning it took us some time to understand and accept the idea,” said Jose Roberto Chun Tiul, Technical Coordinator for the Ministry of Education in Raxruhá, “Now we see that it is a creative way for our children to participate. We now understand that we can educate our students and their parents through practical activities so that they prevent environmental pollution.”

Nicolas Politte, who is coordinating the project with Raxruhá municipality and Counterpart, says the eco-brick technique is already well-known.

“Eco-brick constructions have been expanding steadily in Guatemala. We know of at least 11 finished schools and five more being built, while a considerable amount of restrooms, meeting rooms, and other useful and needed structures have also been built,” Politte says.

Raxruhá has shown a strong commitment to the development of the region in recent years. The administration drew up a 15-year Municipal Development Plan where environmental education and solid waste management were identified as two of the area’s main challenges.

Evolution of the program

This project is divided into three phases and the awards ceremony marks the completion of phase two. In phase one, workshops and trainings are held where schools shared ideas and students, teachers and parents were taught how to build trashcans from reused plastic bottles. In a participatory process parents and teachers of each school discuss and vote in order to commit to participate in the ensuing environmental education and protection efforts.

In the second phase, the progress that each school and surrounding community has made was evaluated over several months. Evaluation criteria included the implementation of best practices such as trash separation, composting and organic fertilizer production.

And finally, technical assistance for more ambitious constructions will be provided in the third phase. Stricter evaluations will also be held, focusing specifically on how internalized and sustainable the processes are becoming within each school and community. At the end of this evaluation, the top 5 schools will be selected and prizes awarded to both rural and urban schools.

Prizes include clean-up kits for schools and eco-filters for water purification. The first prize will be a new eco-bathroom combo with walls made from eco-bricks, four gravity toilets and a rainwater collection system.

Politte spoke about what lies ahead for the Eco-bricks program: “We need to find more participants and supporters in order to consolidate and expand our efforts in 2012. It is important to cover the growing demand for these kinds of eco-constructions so that people continue to learn and retain hopeful environmental conservation efforts,” he says.

Along with Counterpart’s Community Tourism Alliance, other contributing organizations include USAID, the Municipality of Raxruhá, Ministry of Education, Ecofiltro and Hug It Forward.

GOOD has also highlighted this program on their site.