Bottle School Technology

How are bottles used to build the schools?

Bottle schools are built using tried and tested post and beam construction, using concrete columns and beams reinforced with iron. The main difference compared to building with bricks or cinder-blocks is that bottle schools use “eco-bricks”. Eco-bricks are plastic bottles that are stuffed full of inorganic trash. The eco-bricks are stacked on top of each other like bricks, and then covered with cement to form the walls of the school. More details of how to build a bottle school.

How are eco-bricks made?

Eco-bricks are made from plastic bottles stuffed with  inorganic trash. It is very important that you use bottles that are dry and somewhat clean and trash that has no food residue on it and is dry as well. Eco-bricks need to be completely solid (thus the term “eco-brick”) and can be filled using a stick or any stick-like material that is inflexible and can fit through the mouth of the bottle (a piece of rebar works great). To fill a bottle, you just need a variety of different inorganic trash and you start to stuff the trash until it completely fills the bottom of the bottle with no gaps or spaces. You continue to use this method until you reach the mouth of the bottle and if your bottle is solid enough to stand on without it compacting at all, then you can cap it and store it as your eco-brick.

Where do you get the trash from?

The trash we use to build our bottle schools comes from the community where the school is built, and sometimes the surrounding communities. In most parts of Guatemala, and many other countries around the world, there aren’t recycling facilities and sometimes there isn’t even a trash collection service; people usually have to burn or bury their trash to get rid of it and much of it gets washed away with the rain and gets dumped into the local watershed. Part of the partnership we create with each community where we build bottle schools is that community members volunteer their labor; this means that the community has to come together and work as one to collect all the trash and bottles needed to build their future bottle classrooms.  

Why build with bottles?

The biggest reason to build with bottles is that it is great for the environment, both locally and globally. Many communities in developing countries like Guatemala have no trash or recycling services, so the local people are forced to burn or bury their trash. When they burn their trash, it creates a lot of air pollution which can lead to a lot of upper respiratory diseases from asthma to lung cancer. If they try and bury their trash, most of it gets washed into the rivers and oceans during the rainy season. Since every bottle school takes over two tons of trash to build, we are helping to limit the environmental and health impacts that trash can have on our environment. Other reasons we like to use bottles is to lower overall costs and because the lessons of environmental education will stay with children in the community forever. See more reasons to build bottle schools

How long does it take to build a bottle school?

Generally, a bottle school can be completed in 4 to 5 months for a two classroom structure. Adding more classrooms adds more time and many factors can lead to a bottle school taking longer to finish. But, if the weather and does not interfere, the local people are out helping with the construction and all of the eco-bricks needed are finished before the school is started, then there should be no reason why a bottle school project couldn’t be finished in three to four months.

Are the bottles strong enough?

Since the bottles are only the filler in the wall, they do not need to be “strong enough” to support the overall structure of the building. They actually have no structural integrity. Instead, to support the structure of the school we use rebar and cement columns, both horizontal and vertical. The bottles do provide excellent insulation. The bottles are inside the walls placed between two sheets of chicken wire and are plastered over with cement so they don’t receive any sunlight and insects and animals cannot get to them; nor is the heat sufficient to degrade the bottles.

How long do bottle schools last?

Bottle schools last as long as regular buildings made with post and beam construction. They should last at least 100 years. The plastic bottles in the walls have no effect on the building’s durability. But durability is all dependent upon local weather and seismic patterns.

What happens if there’s an earthquake?

Our building methods are rigorously tested by structural engineers to comply with international building codes, including tests for how the structure would perform in an earthquake. We take safety very seriously, especially since Guatemala lies on a fault line and is susceptible to earthquakes.

How much does a bottle school cost?

The costs vary depending on many different factors (some of them are listed in the Bottle School Manual). The average cost comes out to around $6,500 per classroom, which is 30-100% cheaper than other schools in Guatemala built using cinder-blocks, which is the most common comparable construction method.

Who invented bottle schools?

People have been building things using trash for a long time, using lots of different methods. The idea of using plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash to build was initiated in Guatemala by the organization Pura Vida. Hug It Forward heard about the technology after being introduced to Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps volunteer who was working with the community of Granados to construct two classrooms using plastic bottles. The technology has continued to evolve since then into its current form which is very different from the earliest incarnations.

How much trash can you fit in a plastic bottle?

A lot more than you think! It takes up to two hours to correctly stuff a plastic bottle until it is solid like a brick, with no air spaces inside, and you can’t fit any more trash in. In the process, you can fit 90 or more plastic bags or chip packets into the bottle. But don’t take our word for it – try it at home and let us know! Make sure you use proper technique to get the bottles stuffed properly.


Bottle School Process

What happens if you run out of bottles and trash?

Many communities have plenty of inorganic trash to build their own bottle school. If they don’t, other local communities contribute. It would be a dream come true for us if there were no more trash in the world to build any more bottle schools! We dream of a world where nobody throws anything away.

How many bottles does it take to build a bottle school?

It takes around 6,500 600ml bottles stuffed with trash to build a school with two classrooms of 6m x 8m each. That’s between two and three tons of trash in total!

Who provides the teachers?

Hug It Forward provides support of teachers and schools through physical infrastructure. Often we are replacing existing temporary structures that communities have created – people want their kids to go to school and people are resourceful, so they construct what they can out of what they have: adobe, sheet metal, wood, corn stalks. It is a pre-requisite of our bottle school projects to build at a school that is already certified by the local governmental educational system, or the Ministry of Education. In Central America, all public schools are funded and run by the government which is in charge of providing the teachers for all the schools throughout the country. If a school is not recognized and certified by the Ministry, then the community will have to get certification through their local Ministry’s office as much as up to a year in advance of their proposed start date for the school year. Since we don’t want to build classrooms that will not be used, we need to have the assurance before starting a project that our classrooms will be used by students and teachers.

How do you identify the communities you work in?

The focus of Hug It Forward’s work is in the municipality of San Martin Jilotepeque, which is one of the poorest municipalities in Guatemala, although we do have projects in other areas too. Gerson Guitz, our Director of Bottle Schools, has worked in San Martin Jilotepeque for many years and has close relationships with local communities, masons and the mayor. Communities hear about bottle schools by word of mouth and approach Hug It Forward expressing their desire to build a bottle school in their community.

How do you select the communities you work in?

Interested communities submit a detailed application form including as much information as possible about their community. Hug It Forward assesses applications taking into account many factors, paying particular attention to the need for a school in the community, poverty, strong local leadership, and the desire the community has for a bottle school.

What's your relationship with Peace Corps?

We love Peace Corps volunteers! We believe that they are future worldchangers. We have had a lot of success working with Peace Corps volunteers on bottle school projects – they are exactly the sort of facilitators that a bottle school project needs in order to be successful. Hug It Forward does not have an official relationship with Peace Corps, although we are friends with Peace Corps staff and volunteers in Guatemala, El Salvador and beyond. We are excited about the possibility of one day supporting Peace Corps volunteers in other countries to build more bottle schools.

What is the Bottle School Manual?

The Bottle School Manual is a step-by-step guide on how to build a bottle school in your community. Use it how you like, and please leave comments on the page(s) with your input-  help us make it better!

Hug It Forward

How many people work for Hug It Forward?

We are a team of 12 – not including the masons we hire on a project-by-project basis, and not including all the volunteers who have helped fundraise, lead projects, and spread the word, and not including the tens of thousands of community members who have participated in building a bottle school.

Is Hug It Forward a registered non-profit?

Yes, Hug It Forward is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit, registered in the state of Wyoming. Our Tax ID number is 27-0909586. All donations to Hug It Forward are tax-deductible.

Why did you choose Guatemala?

Guatemala chose us. We were introduced to Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps volunteer who was building a bottle school in Guatemala. We fell in love with the idea bottle schools, and it made sense to stay in Guatemala as we had relationships and experience in the country. And now we are truly in love with Guatemala, it’s possibly the most beautiful country in the world, with wonderful people, culture, history, landscape, everything.

Who pays for the schools?

Hug It Forward has different funding sources. We raise funds through online fundraising, offline donations, conscious businesses, major donations, people fundraising for bottle school trips, and grants. Frugality and transparency are key values of ours – it is our highest priority to maximize value for donors’ money, and to keep track where every penny is spent.

Does Hug It Forward fund 100% of the schools?

A successful bottle project is all about partnerships. In San Martin Jilotepeque, our primary area of bottle school construction, Hug It Forward’s donors pay for all of the materials required for bottle school construction. All of the skilled labor required to build the schools is paid for by the mayor of San Martin, thanks to a special agreement that we have with him. All of the unskilled labor is donated by the community members, with each person having to work a set number of days on the construction site. The Ministry of Education pays for all teachers.

When facilitating bottle schools outside of San Martin, different funding arrangements exist, on a case by case basis. When working with Peace Corps Volunteers, for example, although Hug It Forward has funded 100% of projects in the past, our policy is now to fund no more than 50% of the total project cost. The rest comes from the municipality, community, fundraising by the Peace Corps Volunteer, and other local partners. As well as getting the most value for donors’ money, this helps to ensure wide and deep ownership in the project.

What is “conscious business”?

Hug It Forward is working to align ourselves with companies that consider all facets of the effects of their business, product, and practices on the environment, and its effect on people both global and locally. Broadly speaking, conscious businesses are businesses that are not just about making money, but subscribe to a “Triple Bottom Line” model of success, aiming to provide positive value in the domains of people, planet, and profit. We believe in the power of conscious capitalism to change the world.

What happened to tracking your hugs?

We believe in the power of hugs. We used to have a web site where you could track your hugs around the world on a Google Map as you “hug it forward”. We don’t have time to continue developing the web site, as we have been too occupied with bottle schools. If you, or someone you know, wants to continue the hug-tracking project, please get in touch!


Getting Involved

Can I help build a bottle school?

Yes! Our partner organization Serve The World Today offers one-week voluntourism trips where you can be part of building a bottle school with your own hands. Visit Serve The World Today for more information about trips and to see upcoming trip dates. Or if you can get a group of 10 or more people together, they can arrange a trip around your availability.

How else can I help?

There are lots of ways you can help – donate, fundraise, spread the word, volunteer, and that’s just the start! See our Get Involved page for more ideas.

Can I collect bottles and make eco-bricks?

It doesn’t make sense to ship your trash from the US to Guatemala: it would cost a lot both financially and environmentally, plus there is enough trash in Guatemala as there is. But you could still try making eco-bricks at home – just to see how much trash you generate! You can use these eco-bricks as props to talk to your friends about bottle schools. Or maybe you could make your own bottle constructions – a bench or wall or something else made of bottles. If you live in Guatemala, we may be able to use your eco-bricks – but the best thing would be if you could come to a bottle school and help place the bricks yourself. Please contact us if you’re interested.

Can you build a bottle school in my country/community?

You can build a bottle school in your community! The bottle school technology is really not that complicated, and we’ve made it even easier by creating a step-by-step guide called the Bottle School Manual. The Manual is not perfect, and we would welcome your feedback – please take a look and then get in touch!

I don't have any money. How can I help?

There are lots of other ways to get involved, including fundraising and spreading the word. Maybe you could start making eco-bricks at home – they are great tools to show to people to help spread the word about bottle schools! But for the reasons above, please note that it doesn’t make sense to send your eco-bricks to Guatemala: you can use them for demonstration purposes, or to make your own bottle construction projects.