How ingenious use of plastic bottles is helping Tongan school children, humpback whales, small island communities and one fairly normal Aussie guy.
Originally published in SevenSeas Magazine.
If I summarize it in a sentence it sounds like a total cliché: man goes to small undeveloped island, helps community and schools through sustainable building, changes lives. But the real story is so much deeper, more astounding and more beautiful that it definitely deserves more than just one sentence.
Phil Smith, from Sydney´s northern beaches (Australia) has been running a business for the past seven years in the Kingdom of Tonga – famous for its pristine deep blue seas, whales, coral reefs and friendly locals. Phil has two boats and several Tongan staff and takes people out to swim with the visiting humpback whales. Recently he got hold of some land to start building a resort for his guests. He considered the design aesthetics, cost and availability of supplies in the small island nation. Here’s where the story gets interesting (even more interesting than swimming with whales): instead of shipping in building materials, Phil decided he wanted something different. He decided to get experimental, and use plastic bottles as his main basis for the design.
“Basically, in Vava’u the usual building materials are masonry blocks made on the island or timber imported or from a plantation on Eau, a Tongan island to the South. Both these materials have their merits, however they have limits re design capabilities. Plastic bottle bricks have many far superior qualities including the flexibility of design that I was after. I could not have imagined (from being a bit of a smart a…. in my choice of materials) how many positive impacts have been already created within Vava’u & it’s community.”, Phil Smith.
Putting his experience in the building industry to work, he calculated he would need at least 20,000 bottles to kick things off, and would need the help of the local community to make this happen. He also knew that paying for the bottles would motivate people to help, but put a unique spin on this – schools could choose what they need, and use the bottles as currency to help them buy it. Soon three local schools were filling bottles, in exchange for electricity (at one harbourside school, which had been powerless since a 2002 cyclone), a lawn mower (at a garden-proud primary school) and floor coverings (to make the concrete classrooms a lot more comfortable). Twice a week, Phil visits the schools to collect the solid filled bottles, as the kids line up singing and counting to load up the truck. Roanna, a whale swim client who helped out with collecting the bottles from schools and community groups observed “I got such precious insights into this incredible way of being. And how two such radically different cultures can work together…without the locals feeling belittled or overpowered…to create equally desired benefits on both sides”.
What are Eco Bricks?
An eco brick is basically a plastic bottle, used as a brick. This idea appears to have sprung up in many places around the world, as people found a more permanent and useful way to reuse the plastic bottle (an “impermanent”, single use item). This usually involves stuffing the bottle with other plastic waste, or in Phil’s case with local gravel, to create a solid building material.
Collecting the bottles is done by local kids and schools, as well as by Phil and any willing volunteers.
He drives around the island, bumping along past fields of coconuts and dodging pigs and dogs, while volunteers stand on the truck bed, thumping the roof when bottles are spotted roadside. At the beginning this was easier – there are many, many illegal dumpsites in Tonga. Like most Pacific Island nations, their trash is not so efficiently ‘disappeared’ and whisked away like it is in first world countries. Instead, it’s usually burnt or just piled on the side of the road or in the mangroves. These trash piles are landmines of dirty nappies, but also treasure troves if you’re seeking plastic. Because like everywhere in the world, they have a serious problem with plastic – bottles, bags, cutlery, cups, straws – all these items we use for a few minutes, but are made of a material that can last forever.
How Phil´s house has made a difference so far.
This choice of building material has had a huge impact in a number of unexpected ways. Some of the positive changes for the schools, local community and environment include:
Schools that were filling bottles have received electricity to several classrooms, a mower, and shiny new floor coverings.
There has been a huge and visible difference in the amount of plastic bottles littering beaches, roadside and the mangroves.
So far Phil has collected over 35,000 bottles!
Families are hanging out together to fill bottles and socialize, and using the money to benefit themselves and their children.
By going round to the bars and restaurants to collect & smash glass (to use as aggregate in the concrete) Phil has unintentionally started Vava´u´s only current recycling program.
This idea has inspired visiting NGOs and other businesses and organisations to start using the Eco Brick idea, or glass smashing, and reusing waste instead of land-filling it.
There are so many random bits and pieces that have been cleaned up from the island to be used in the recycled resort and its construction, from telephone poles, to flour sacks to phone booths to liquor bottles…
The building is providing work for locals, for example Massi (who works on Phil’s boat during whale season) goes to New Zealand to pick fruit for the rest of the year – sending the money back home to his wife and kids. This year he’ll be staying with Phil to help build, and having Christmas with the family.
How A Plastic Bottle House Helps Whales.
Eco Bricks are one of many solutions to the growing problem of what to do with all this plastic waste. Currently 8% of global oil is used to produce plastic, over 300 million tonnes globally, and growing every year. This plastic lasts forever, and can easily end up in the ocean where it is now a major threat to all wildlife – it’s been found inside coral, at the bottom of the deepest ocean and on even the most remote of beaches. Large pieces of plastic have been found inside dead whales (causing starvation or rupturing organs) and filter feeders like the humpback whales are sucking in tiny pieces of broken down plastics. It’s even coming back to get us, the humans who created it, as tiny microplastics (along with their pollutants) are entering our food chain through seafood, and even table salt. It’s estimated that people who eat seafood are ingesting around 11,000 microplastic pieces every year!
Plastic pollution is a concern for Phil, but also provides an opportunity – “of course I am worried about plastic pollution, as the majority of the informed are. Being a bit of a realist as well, I understand the huge versatility plastic provides in the modern world & understand it’s widespread uses. Yet since I have started my bottle project, I now am a lot more aware of my own uses of plastic & have cut down a lot. With passionate people…I’m sure the word will spread & thought patterns & habits of those you touch might change re their own plastic use. If my project can touch others in anyway regarding this, then that would be the best spin off of all”
Phil is not a greenie, hippie, environmentalist, activist, conservationist or tree hugger. Which is why this story is so much more powerful. He didn’t read an amazing article, or see a sad turtle photo, become inspired and start this project to clean up the ocean. Phil’s solution is just one person, doing what he can, in his environment and community. He’s managed to prevent 35,000 bottles so far from entering the ocean (or being burned and releasing toxins into the atmosphere and our air).
I understand that’s setting the bar pretty high, but the good news is that even by taking your own bag to the supermarket, you personally can prevent 22,000 plastic bags from being used over your lifetime. And that’s just shopping bags. While getting a reusable drink bottle may reduce some of Phil’s building material, it will benefit the humpback whales and our planet, as thousands of single use water bottles remain unsold. We vote with our dollar, and not purchasing plastic will begin to alter the market and positively impact our world. Every action has an impact; it’s up to you to decide what you want that impact to be.