Plastic is everywhere. About 448 million tonnes is produced every year. It is estimated that worldwide humans buy a million plastic bottles per minute, and despite being recyclable, 91% ends up either in landfills or choking the oceans. The problem is so grave that researchers rank the plastic bottle crisis second only to climate change. They even predict that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
This undeniable crisis and the sheer abundance of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles has also inspired communities and designers around the world. They see opportunity to repurpose these discards as construction materials. Given that PET takes about 400 years to decompose, they can make building materials that are cheap, readily available, and incredibly durable. Across the world numerous initiatives have started making their mark. In Bogota, Colombia, architects like Oscar Mendez have created interlocking building blocks, while in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a start-up is creating cheap homes using plastic bottles.
A building technique called the “bottle wall technique” developed by German firm Ecotec Environmental Solutions is at the core of some of these projects. This technique involves bottles being filled with sand, stacked, and glued together with a cement mix. Development Association for Renewable Energies (DARE), an NGO based in Kaduna, Nigeria, has adopted this technique to create homes for the homeless. The resulting structures are well insulated, stronger than bricks, fire resistant, and even bulletproof. And since sand is an excellent insulator, the interior temperatures are on average between 5-15 degrees cooler than the outdoors. A typical two-bedroom home requires about 14,000 plastic bottles and costs a quarter of what a brick and mortar house would, making it rather cost-effective. Moreover, the project solves two problems at once: homelessness and helping the environment.
In addition to repurposing waste plastic, the campaign is providing humanitarian relief to the Sahrawi refugee camps in the Algerian desert. Tateh Lehbib Braica, a 27-year-old engineer known to locals as the “crazy bottle guy”, first built a house for his grandmother using 6,000 plastic bottles filled with sand and straw. Soon after, he received a grant from the UNHCR to construct 25 homes in other Sahrawi refugee camps using this method, to benefit other Algerian refugees in the province of Tindouf.
Providing a roof over the heads of a community’s most vulnerable populations is definitely the highlight of these initiatives. However, plastic bottles have also been repurposed to create a building on a grand scale in Taiwan. EcoARK, the world’s lightest, movable, breathable environmental structure was built in Taipei from 1.5 million recycled plastic bottles for the 2010 Taipei International Expo. The 130-metre long structure was engineered to withstand earthquakes and typhoons, and can be completely disassembled.