New books ideas seem to find me when I least expect them. And that’s exactly what happened when I spied a colorful, plastic wall sparkling in the sunlight at the annual Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. in 2011. As I walked toward the towering plastic structure, I noticed children stuffing plastic bags into old soda bottles with sticks. The trash-filled bottles were stacked inside a wood frame to create a wall. When I discovered this display demonstrated how children in Guatemala built their own school out of trash, I knew without a doubt I had to share this incredible recycling story with young readers!
So I introduced myself to the woman running the exhibit, Laura Kutner. As it turns out, Laura was a teacher at the school made out of trash (the Escuela Oficial Urbana Mixta de Granados) and had been an important part of the entire construction process, from idea to completion. I asked Laura if she would consider co-authoring a book about the school’s innovative project with me, and thankfully she agreed.
The beauty of this recycling project is that the students creatively used one problem (their growing piles of trash) to solve another problem (their overcrowded classrooms.) This project began in 2007, when the tiny Guatemalan town of Granados (population 847) was becoming overrun with trash created by products arriving from other countries. The village didn’t have any garbage dumps or recycling centers, so their trash piles were continually growing. Also, their elementary school was becoming more and more crowded. Two grades had to squeezed into one classroom, and two students shared each desk.
The situation looked hopeless until someone suggested this crazy idea — what if they built new schoolrooms out of their trash? No one knew if the idea would work, but everyone was willing to give it a try. Over two hundred children, along with teachers, parents, and grandparents, helped with the project.
First, the students collected over six thousand bottles. They carefully washed the bottles and set them in the sun to dry. Then the children filled each bottle with about two hundred and fifty old grocery and chip bags. Two hundred and fifty! They called the stuffed bottles eco-ladrillos, or eco-bricks. The bottle stuffing process took six months and most children ended up with blisters on their hands. Next, the eco-ladrillos were stacked between chicken wire fastened to a metal frame to create the walls.
After fifteen months of hard work, their ugly trash had turned into a beautiful school! When the school was finished, the village threw a huge fiesta to celebrate. Their new school started with one crazy idea, but it became a reality due to hard work and teamwork.
I’m excited that Laura and I were able to share this school’s inspiring story through our book, The Soda Bottle School: The True Story of Recycling, Teamwork, and One Crazy Idea, which received the 2015 Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. It’s been very rewarding to hear how the Guatemala school project has inspired other students and classrooms to find new, creative ways to recycle.
[FYI: I’m also pleased to say my author proceeds from the book are being donated to fund new bottle schools through a nonprofit organization called Hug-It-Forward. Laura is donating her portion to Trash for Peace, a nonprofit organization which promotes environmental education and ideas for upcycled/recycled projects, such as awesome recycle bins made out of plastic bottles. Recycle Bin instructions can be found on the Trash for Peace website, and a free Teacher’s Guide for the book is available on my website.]
Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of more than 100 nonfiction books for children. Honors include an NSTA 2016 Outstanding Science Trade Book for The Inventor’s Secret and California Reading Association Eureka! Silver Award for Multiply On The Fly.” The House That George Built was a Junior Library Guild Selection and Friends for Freedom a CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book. Find all of Suzanne’s books at www.suzanneslade.com.