There is no shortage of global environmental problems to solve in the 21st century, and one of the biggest challenges is our addiction to plastic and plastic bottles. Every second 22,000 nondegradable plastic bottles are discarded globally, and the rate is constantly increasing. Almost one third of all plastic produced ends up polluting the environment, mostly the ocean, where the problem becomes less visible to people but all the more problematic.
One project that has taken action to solve the plastic problem is the Plastic Bottle Village, a community of houses that is being built using plastic bottles as the main construction material. Located on Isla Colón, the main island of Panama’s famous Bocas del Toro archipelago, the project is using plastic bottles to build modern, earthquake-resistant and comfortable houses at a reduced cost – all the while helping clean the planet. A few months ago I visited the project myself and discussed the plastic bottle problem with the projects’s founder, Canadian Robert Bezeau.
Cleaning up the plastic spill
Bocas del Toro is known for its beautiful beaches, and the archipelago is Panama’s top tourist destination. With lots of tourists comes lots of consumption and lots of plastic bottles. The archipelago’s waste management system is inadequate and not able to handle all the trash, and as a result a significant amount of waste ends up in the sea. The same thing is happening everywhere in the world, and researchers say that by 2050 the total weight of plastic in the oceans will outweigh the fish. Plastic bottles don’t biodegrade, but in the ocean plastic breaks down into tiny particles, known as microplastics, that attract and bind toxic chemicals. Fish and other marine life mistake these microplastics for food, and in this way the toxic plastic enters the food chain, where it spreads all the way to people.
Robert calls it the plastic spill, drawing a parallel to oil spills. Plastic bottles are also made from oil, but the difference is that oil spills are accidental, while the plastic spill is happening by choice. What’s worse is that corporations manufacturing plastic bottles are not held responsible for the pollution. Why did BP have to pay billions of dollars for its 2010 oil spill, but Coca-Cola is not forced to take any responsibility for the plastic spill?
In order to change the system, Robert says we have to rebel and attract attention. He started his rebellion in 2012, a few years after moving to Bocas del Toro. This was when he started a recycling program that collected bottles in Bocas with the help of volunteers. In 1.5 years they collected over 1 million bottles, and the program had to be stopped because they didn’t know what to do with all these bottles. The bottles needed a purpose – they needed to be turned from waste into a resource – and that’s how the Plastic Bottle Village was born.
Plastic bottles as construction material
The Plastic Bottle Village is located on 83 acres of land in the heart of Isla Colón, surrounded by tropical jungle. The vision is to build a community that includes houses, parks and an eco-lodge. The village is designed to coexist with the surrounding nature, with water coming from streams and rain and solar panels providing electricity. The result will be a different kind of ecovillage, where the residents’ environmental footprint – most importantly the plastic footprint – is significantly reduced.
The village’s first plastic bottle house was built in 2015, and the construction technique has since been improved and standardized. The walls are built using a system of steel cages made from rebar and steel mesh. The cages have standardized dimensions that are small enough to be easily handled and prefabricated. These cages are then filled with empty plastic bottles and welded together to form walls. Covering the walls with concrete plaster is optional, but doing so protects the bottles from UV-radiation, creates a modern and clean finish and hides the fact that the house is built with trash. Using this technique, it is possible to build houses in a fraction of time and expense compared to conventional techniques in Panama.
Plastic bottles may not be designed to be used as building material, but the buildings at the Plastic Bottle Village have a number of advantages. The steel structure makes the houses strong but flexible, which makes the bottle buildings earthquake-resistant. Meanwhile, the air trapped inside the bottles provides insulation from the tropical heat, and air flow through unplastered walls can further improve indoor comfort. Unplastered walls also let in natural daylight, and broken pieces of wall could even be used as a flotation device during tsunamis or floods.
Three buildings have been completed so far, and the plan is to build up to 120 plastic bottle houses. One house requires approximately 10,000 to 25,000 bottles, and according to Robert’s calculations an average person uses approximately 14,000 plastic bottles in a lifetime. Essentially this means that building a plastic bottle house could neutralize one’s plastic footprint.
Creating awareness outside the borders of the Plastic Bottle Village
Even with 120 bottle houses, globally speaking the impact of the Plastic Bottle Village will be very small – unless the project can spread awareness about the problem and potential of plastic bottles. In fact, education is a key aspect of the project. Robert sees the person who bought the bottle as its owner, and he wants to make people understand that they are responsible for the bottles they buy. The problem in Robert’s view is that empty plastic bottles have no value. When bottles are on store shelves, they are fulfilling a purpose, but once someone buys the bottle and drinks it, it becomes valueless. This is what the Plastic Bottle Village hopes to change through its new incentive.
The plan is to give away special stickers in exchange for a voluntary contribution to the project. The main target is tourists in Bocas del Toro, who are then instructed to place these stickers on the bottles the buy. The sticker gives each bottle a value of 5 cents, and when bottles are brought to the Plastic Bottle Village, the one bringing the bottles will receive 5 cents for each bottle with a sticker. This will give the locals an incentive to collect bottles, and the plan is to go to local schools to explain to the children that they can make money by collecting bottles. The idea is to evolve this system to offering food instead of money in order to make sure that the money goes to a good cause, but for now Robert sees offering money as an easier way to get started.
Tourism at the Plastic Bottle Village is another initiative that will create income for the project while spreading awareness, and the plan is to give tours of the site, host dinners and eventually to have tourists stay overnight in the village’s plastic bottle Castle. The Plastic Bottle Village also recognizes the importance of education in schools, as it is today’s children who will have to suffer the most from our plastic bottle problem.
Once the project is financially stable, Robert wants to expand and travel to other countries to teach how to use plastic bottles in construction. His vision is to have a world full of Plastic Bottle Villages that receive bottles and spread awareness. While the ultimate solution to the plastic problem is to reduce our consumption and to stop producing nondegradable waste, projects like the Plastic Bottle Village can go a long way in changing the way we see trash, not as waste but as a resource looking for a use.