Sitting in the park, I watch a winded jogger breathlessly guzzle down the last of their Gatorade and toss the plastic bottle into the waste bin. Sighing, I walked deftly over to bin, picked out the Gatorade bottle and tucked it into my bag to recycle at home. Try as I might, I sadly cannot be the rescuer of every recyclable product that’s dumped into the trash. But I’ve often reflected on ways that our trash could be re-purposed.
80% of everyday waste materials can be recycled, broken down and reused (MNN, 2013). Unfortunately, these waste materials are not always recycled. Often, waste that can be recycled ends up in a landfill, buried, burned or in the ocean. In fact, 55% of waste gets buried in landfills while only 33% gets recycled (Kulpinski, 2013). A large percentage of trash that does not end up recycled or in a landfill congregates in the ocean and floats in massive patches, such as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This floating sea of plastic bottles, bags and debris continuously swirls on the surface of the ocean, stretching for hundreds of miles across the North Pacific Ocean (MNN, 2013). 80% of the litter that attributes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land, while free floating fish-nets is to blame for 10%. The rest of the litter comes from boaters, oil rigs, and cargo ships (MNN, 2013). Most of this litter is plastic because the rest biodegrades before joining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in its continual spinning mass of trash.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a convergence zone, propelled by the North Pacific Gyre. Basically, all trash dumped within the vicinity of the gyre takes a six to seven year journey spinning about the garbage patch (MNN, 2013). A famous debris spill that added to the garbage patch occurred in 1992. This was the first time scientists were able to track a mass garbage spill to the garbage patch. 28,000 rubber ducks fell overboard in the Pacific Ocean and traveled within the means of the North Pacific Gyre. The ducks still continue to turn up on beaches around the world to this day (MNN, 2013).
This massive floating wasteland is an outcome of decades of poor human waste disposal and generates countless problems for our future. First, plastic is not biodegradable. Instead, with enough sunlight, the garbage can photo-degrade to microscopic levels, eventually entering the food chain (MNN, 2013). Seabirds, such as the albatross, often mistake plastic for fish eggs and die from consuming the plastic pieces. Additionally, plastic-fishing nets can entangle and kill seals, sea turtles and many other marine creatures. Plastics also absorb pollutants such as PCBs from the water, which may eventually be ingested by surrounding marine life.
Increasingly, there has been interest in finding ways to re-purpose trash into something of value; giving it a second life. There are many innovative ways to dispose of trash that do not include burying, burning or dumping it in the ocean. For example, eco-construction, construction that is friendly to the environment, using recyclable materials and energy efficient, is being explored and utilized as an option of environmentally-friendly recycling. Examples of eco-construction include green building, energy-efficient building, and water conservation. All aspects of eco-construction embrace reducing our waste and increasing our re-use, or giving trash a second purpose. By reducing our waste, we reduce the amount of garbage that piles up in landfills and the amount of plastic that floats in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As a result of our past trash negligence, more organizations promoting eco-construction and trash awareness are being created around the world. By endorsing environmentally and economically-friendly ways to recycle, these organizations are changing the way we view trash.
The dedicated individuals at Hug It Forward are one such organization that is saving the environment, and having fun while doing it. Sarah Sterling, a volunteer at Hug It Forward, shares with PBH insights regarding the eco-construction movement:
PBH: What does Hug It Forward do and why is it important?
Sarah:Hug It Forward (HIF) is a certified US non-profit that is based in San Diego but does all of its work primarily in Guatemala. The type of work that we do would be categorized under “eco construction” since we work with rural communities in Guatemala, and now El Salvador, to build classrooms using plastic bottles filled with inorganic trash instead of bricks or cinder blocks.
In most developing countries, there isn’t really a formalized system of trash collection and recycling programs are almost unheard of. So what do people do with their trash? The concept of inorganic trash is fairly new to many developing countries where before they only had to worry about tossing a banana peel in the street and it would dissolve on its own. Now they have been bombarded by soda bottles, cans and plastic bags which need to be processed in a certain way in order to dispose of them. What HIF does is empower communities to find a different way to not just dispose of their trash in a landfill but recycle it and reuse it for something that will benefit their community as a whole. Overall, each classroom can use up to over 2 tons of trash just from the bottles and the trash stuffed in them. I built a smaller version of a HIF classroom in my community in El Salvador and we used over 2,200 bottles and over 400,000 plastic bags for a 6m by 6m classroom. When you multiply that number to include a 2nd or 3rd classroom, imagine the environmental impact that will have on not just one community, but the global environment as a whole.
Our projects empower communities to take ahold of a dire situation, like the lack of classroom space, and turn it into a community effort that will allow present and future generations to realize that they are capable of anything when they come together for a communally beneficial project. All of the communities we work in are rural and undeserved with many children not being able to even finish 6th grade, let alone go on to high school or college, and this is mostly because of lack of classroom space. Communities are in charge of soliciting and running their own bottle projects and HIF helps with technical support and 25-100% of the funding depending on the community situation and need. Even in cases where HIF funds 100% of the project’s materials, all un-skilled labor comes from the community itself, so the bottle schools are not seen as a donation, but as collaborative projects the community can feel proud of.
They are also in charge of building the classroom and filling the bottles. This empowers communities and makes them take ownership of their project. If a community is given something for free, research shows that they will value it less than if they have to work in order for the project to happen.
PBH: How did this idea come about and how does it work?
Sarah: The idea came from a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala who was already trying to build a classroom (in a different way than we use now) out of plastic bottles and trash but she had run out of funds. She contacted Zach (an HIF member) and the HIF guys came down to assess her project. We helped not only with funding but also with the manual labor to finish the project. After that, they were inspired to evolve the idea and turn it into what it is today.
PBH: What’s next for Hug it Forward? Do you have plans to expand its benefits to cleaning up other environments?
Sarah: We are currently just focusing on getting to more communities by the completion (coming soon!) of our hard copy of the bottle school manual. Right now we have a bottle school manual wiki on our website. Our goal for the future is to be able to empower and enable people in any country on the Earth to build their own classrooms using our technique with very little help from us, thus expanding our reach and increasing the amount of projects world wide.
PBH: How has working with Serve the World Today helped Hug It Forward’s mission? Are there any other organizations with which you are affiliated?
Sarah: Serve the World Today (our partner organization) enables us to use 100% of donations towards our bottle classrooms. It also helps people who may have never been out of the country to come to Guatemala and experience a whole new culture and country.
We have recently become affiliated with an amazing networking organization called Omprakash, which connects volunteers with grassroots health, education and environmental projects around the world.
PBH: Do you think building school out of trash can really make people analyze how much they consume and the amount of trash they produce?
Sarah: Without a doubt, absolutely. In my community, I saw how much it hit people to realize how much trash they were putting into their local environment simply by having to collect it. Everyone kept exclaiming to me “Sarah, we have run out of trash and there are still so many bottles to fill.” People do get the concept when it is put into a literal, in their face situation like having to stuff bottles. We also try and do environmental education in the communities where we work so that people learn the difference between different types of trash and what to do with each type.
PBH: What does being a part of Hug It Forward mean to you?
Sarah: Being a part of HIF is like being part of a big family. HIF is a special organization in that we all really care about what we do, why we do it and we care about each other as people. I am also really proud to be able to help HIF do the work that they do because I personally have seen the impact so I know firsthand that what we are doing is important in so many ways and does actually make a huge difference.
Hug It Forward is changing the world by uniting people over the appreciation of the environment. By building schools and greenhouses in Guatamela from bottles, constructing garden walls and creating recycled art, the organization is inspiring others to think outside the box and reconsider the value of the things they throw in the trash.
Voluntourism, volunteer travel for a charitable cause, is also a great way to get involved in the eco-construction movement. Hug It Forward is a shining example of how communities can come together to fulfill a local-scale project that can be used a model for other areas. Eco-construction is an innovative way to re-purpose trash. My hope is that the next time you have a plastic bottle in your hand, you’ll take an extra moment to reflect on how one’s man trash can become another man’s treasure and help prevent our ocean from being littered with more Great Garbage Patches.
“What is the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch? .” Mother Nature Network (MNN). MNN Holdings, 24 02 2010. Web. 10 Jan 2013. <http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-is-the-great-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch>.
Kulpinski, Dan. “Nationalgeographic.com.” Human Footprint: Where Does All the Stuff Go? . National Geographic. Web. 10 Jan 2013. <http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/human-footprint/trash-talk.html>.
Lindsay Gordon is currently in her junior year as an Undergraduate studying Marine Affairs and Policy at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine Science. She also studies Economics. Lindsay has always been a promoter of environmental conservation, especially in regards to the ocean. She has a strong passion for saving our oceans and spreading the conservation effort through education and outreach.
Christine Beggs is the founder of Project Blue Hope, a site dedicated to spreading her wish for a “Future of Blue.” Currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Marine Conservation, Christine is passionate about communicating ocean sciences.