September 25th, 2012
10:49 AM ET

Turning trash into building material

By The Next List staff, CNN

(CNN) - Susanne Heisse is founder of Pura Vida, a movement for alternative trash management in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Her innovation: the eco-brick.

In its simplest form, the eco-brick is a plastic bottle stuffed with inorganic trash. Stuffed to capacity, these bottles are of sufficient integrity to be used as building blocks for homes and schools throughout Central America.

With the help of the Peace Corps and charities like Hug It Forward, this deceptively simple building innovation is now spreading throughout the world.

Heisse, a former East German political prisoner turned fashion designer, moved to Lake Atitlan 15 years ago. Enchanted by the beauty of the area - and the Mayan people who call it home - she soon recognized that trash, mountains and mountains of it, was threatening the lake's very existence.

Heisse first seized on plastic bottles as a repository for trash simply as a means to clean up the area. But when Hurricane Stan decimated her village in 2005, Heisse realized the bottles could be used as a construction material. With dozens of families in need of new homes, victims and relief workers were quick to adopt the eco-brick, building five homes within weeks of the disaster.

Today the eco-brick has been used to build more than 200 schools and countless homes throughout Central America. Constructions have also been reported in Africa and Southeast Asia. This summer, two volunteers from Ladakh, India, met with Susanne and the charity Hug It Forward for a first-hand tutorial on how to build similar schools in the Himalayas.

Cheap, easy to make and environmentally friendly, the eco-brick could be a common-sense solution for almost any community. And that’s what puts Susanne Heisse on The Next List.

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soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. sushismith

    Reblogged this on Veggies&Zen and commented:
    More about the "eco-brick"!

    August 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  2. Carlos

    I wonder if the bottle companies can innovate a new bottle shape that can actually aid in a more sound construction both structually and ecologically? In terms of shape, I was thinking something along the lines of interlocking shapes...like Legos, the possibilities are endless. With regard to the environment, perhaps a new design would use less material or just less of the harmful material in some sort of a hybrid design.

    August 10, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  3. Craig

    I wonder if some of the negative comments are by people who have never lived in abject poverty. Plastic bottle walls that provide a living space is of much more interest that possible hurricane 5 force winds or toxicity.

    August 10, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  4. kelly

    I don't think it makes any sense. Effluent filters, Wastewater Products, Septic Tank Risers, Septic Filter

    November 6, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
  5. Maristella

    Israel is the one nation with a dog in the fight in the Middle East; they have an enixtestial interest in Iran's nukes, and unlike the general sentiment in the West, believe what Iran tells us. If you have an enemy who states to the world that they want to wipe you off the map, I would tend to believe them as well. Israel will do what it needs to do to survive in the region. It always has.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  6. Dan

    I think this link will help building materials at http://bidethiopia.com and you will find a lot of good information about how people can get free bids

    October 16, 2012 at 7:44 am | Reply
  7. Dimson

    It would make less sense if it is not cheaper than normal bricks.

    October 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  8. Katz

    I know Susanne from projects in Guatemala when she started do this 10 years ago. Such a wonderful person. These buildings have been tested by several universities /architects for earthquake readiness...actually are better than say cornet as the bottles and wire have slight give and don't crack like cement would. Very very strong, and yes are covered with a cement mix.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  9. Cynthia L.

    Questions about flamable properties of plastics which are made from oil are definetly worthy of concern. I assume these bricks are covered with adobe or cement which cuts down on the air supply to fuel a fire and the degradation of the material by the sun and any toxic off-gasing.
    When going to third world countries it is heartbreaking to see the results of modern day packing in the gutters, on the sidewalks, stuck in the bushes and worst of all, giant rafts of the stuff, some estimated to be the size of Texas, floating in gyres in all of the world's oceans. The sun breaks it up in pieces which are then consumed by birds and fish. ALL to the planet and it's inhabitants peril.
    The plastic container makers and the oil industries have not dealt with the aftermath of their products BUT still continue on as if it doesn't need to be addressed making more of the stuff everyday in the continuing pursuit of their profits over the health of the overall population and our natural environment.
    Most countries do not have re-cycling programs. Most countries have building resources that are dwindling with the rising populations. This is an excellent way to clean up the mess and make good use of the stuff that continues to hurt the planet in one way or another.

    September 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  10. Ken J.

    What an absolutely wonderful idea. For sure, the problem is too much plastic in the world and it does not recycle despite what the plastic industry wants you to believe with those collection containers outside of supermarkets. But here you have an immediate REUSE solution that teaches children to clean up their environment. And then you have her teaching about nutrition and how to keep all the plastic potato chip bags, etc. from bringing the wrong food into their bodies. This should spread to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India. And, of course, America.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  11. Maribel

    Wow, how impressive. Small people making big changes! You go Susana Heisse!!

    September 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  12. Jean SmilingCoyote

    It sounds great using trash in anything new; but I wonder if buildings made of these eco-bricks have enough structural strength to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. No details are given about the full construction method, and whether any reinforcement is added. We know that regular clay brick walls aren't enough protection against an EF3 tornado, without reinforcement; I don't know offhand what Category of hurricane those wind speeds correspond to.

    September 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • Penny Rambacher

      The small rural villages in Guatemala that do not have schools tend to build make-shift classroom shacks under a wood overhang, or the structure is made from cane, or laminated metal sheets. This does little to protect against normal wind, sun and rain. Schools constructed out of plastic bottles packed filled with plastic and paper trash is more solid than anything they have right now. And, this type of construction is less likely to kill anyone during an earthquake, which are common in Guatemala. There is a "how to manual" on how to build bottle schools, and they provide more info on how the building is structurally sound.

      September 28, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  13. Penny Rambacher, Founder Miracles in Action

    Be sure to watch this CNN special promoting Pura Vida, one of our partner charities in Guatemala. Pedro Rodriguez and I were filmed by CNN doing a demo on Sawyer water filters and the growing/cooking of chaya as a nutritious under-utilized plant. Not sure if we are included in their film editing. But, I plan to watch and cheer on Susana Heisse in her bottle/trash construction efforts, and promoting healthy schools through better nutrition. Miracles in Action

    September 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  14. Name*Steve

    This stuff will give off highly toxic fumes and gases much like the synthetic sports fields do in the sun.

    September 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  15. Jamie

    I agree with George very toxic.

    September 26, 2012 at 3:25 am | Reply
  16. TX4UREXKARLENE

    Love it !!! Beloit College has beautiful bathroom counters made from trash & they were not cheap ;-)

    September 25, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  17. George Robert

    Nice idea, however, if it catches fire would it not be a bit toxic and an out of control fuel for fire.

    September 25, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  18. prithviinspire

    This was an wonderful idea; the wastage is becoming a big issue in now a days world. The eco-system is changing of waste materials. If we really find alternative methods like this than it will be big win for the saving nature and the eco-system around you.

    September 25, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply

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