Bottles to Bricks: An Idea Worth Spreading

When I am in the US, I am admittedly a bit of an anti-soda humbug (“anti-pop” for my readers in Minnesota). It’s not just that soda is gratuitously unhealthy, but the bottles that contain it are as bad for the environment as their contents are for your body. Even if you recycle your plastic bottles, they’re still wreaking environmental havoc.

Ah, sweet tangawizi

In Uganda, I’ve become much less anti-soda. This is due to no less than three factors: 1: Soda here is not made with high fructose corn syrup, as it is in the US. 2: It is much more common to find soda in glass bottles than plastic bottles here, and the empty glass bottles are ultimately re-used. 3: There is a delightful, gingery soda called “Stoney Tangawizi” which can only be found in East Africa (to my knowledge).

And now there’s even better news: SOMEONE HAS FOUND A USEFUL AND AWESOME SOLUTION FOR PLASTIC EMPTIES!!!

No, that person is not me. As with so many other revolutionary ideas, the progenitor is a Catholic Sister.

The hearing aid-fitting event in Gulu that I discussed earlier was hosted at St. Monica Girls’ Tailoring Centre, a vocational school for young women, many of whom were abducted during the LRA conflict. The director of St. Monica’s is Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, an exceptional woman in many regards, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting.

Sister Rosemary has a lot of great ideas. But one of the best is building houses out of plastic bottles. When I heard several students talking about building houses out of plastic bottles, I was imagining a science fair-type playhouse. Not at all..

Here’s how the process works:

First, the bottles are packed full of soil. The hardness of the clay soil reinforces the walls of the plastic bottles, and makes them as hard as bricks. In fact, this is the same clay that is used to make bricks, but packing the clay into bottles is better for the environment in two ways: it keeps those bottles out of landfills and it removes the need to burn firewood, which is the most common fuel for brick kilns in Africa.

Second, the bottles are arranged in rows and concrete is poured between them, in much the same way that bricks are adjoined with mortar. Using the earth-filled bottles as bricks is much cheaper than building a normal concrete structure as a significantly smaller amount of concrete needs to be used for these bottle houses. Additionally, for reasons that I don’t completely understand  these houses are much cooler inside than either normal brick or purely concrete houses – a huge positive in hot, arid climates like northern Uganda.

Exterior of one of St. Monica's bottle houses

What’s so brilliant about turning these plastic bottles into bricks is that the very same quality that makes PET bottles (the most common type) such terrible denizens of landfills — they are incapable of biodegradation — makes them impeccable building materials.

As you can see in the picture above, the bottoms of the bottles, poking through the concrete, have a certain whimsical aesthetic to them. The tops of the bottles, visible on the inside, can also make for built-in interior decorations:

Interior of the bottle house

I don’t want to overstate the potential for this new construction method, but let’s be honest. This could be a game-changer. Right now the world is emptying plastic bottles much faster than we can recycle, much less re-use them.  If this idea catches on, though (and please help it do so by sharing this in your social networks), it could kill multiple proverbial birds with one stone: the problem of all those plastic bottles lying around, the lack of affordable but still structurally sound houses, and the problem of extreme discomfort from heat (perhaps this is more of a problem in my mind than in most Ugandans’).

Sister Rosemary has a lot of other interesting ideas, including another one that makes use of the waste from soda packaging. But that’s for another post…

Sister Rosemary's über-chic pop-tab purse.

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2 responses to “Bottles to Bricks: An Idea Worth Spreading

  1. This would be helpful in rural Ghana. Note to all, I would be wary about claiming the sister as the inventor… because this style of building is being used in Honduras, and other Latin American countries.

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