Finding safe, strong, and sustainable construction materials can often be a challenge in many countries across the Global South. Many buildings, including schools (which are often single classrooms) are commonly found in small, cramped shacks. Not only are school children easily distracted in cramped learning spaces, they are also in physical danger due to poor building conditions. But a new, innovative building material, the EcoBrick, is becoming popular and allows for large, safe, and sustainable schools to be built.
An EcoBrick is a plastic 2 liter container filled with compacted non-recyclable materials, such as food wrappers or Styrofoam. Since they are compacted, there is very little air left inside the bottle, which helps create solid “bricks” that can be used for construction. They are often piled high and then sealed into a wall with plaster. EcoBricks are also a cost-effective building material as they are created using only garbage. Not only are they cheap and easily utilized, they also help reduce street pollution and the expansion of landfills in Global South communities.
EcoBricks are currently being used by different organizations in many countries, including the Philippines, Nigeria, Columbia, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Hug It Forward, a group based in Guatemala, has already constructed 41 schools using EcoBricks and hopes to begin expanding throughout all of Latin America.
In Walmer Township, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, an emerging group called The EcoBrick Exchange has begun plans to construct a new primary school in a vulnerable community to help provide young children the opportunity to receive an education in a safe environment. The project was started by freelance architect Ian Dommisse after learning that there was a desperate need for a safe primary school. A group of 55 children who comprised the Penguins Learn & Play Centre had been meeting in a run-down shack near a teacher’s house.
The EcoBrick Exchange was then born with the goal of providing a safe learning environment for primary children, while also boosting environmental awareness, sustainability, and community support and involvement. Building on international examples, The EcoBrick Exchange in Port Elizabeth encourages the entire community to come together to reduce waste and create a new educational centre.
Their work not only focuses on building a facility for the young students, but to also create a safe community filled with positive learning opportunities for them. The EcoBrick Exchange works within the community of Port Elizabeth to ensure that proper educational materials are used within the school they will build. They help the students succeed in the classroom to ensure they are on par with educational standards, and will be able to succeed once graduating into the primary school system.
Community members are encouraged to get involved not only through monetary funds, but also by making and donating EcoBricks. There are a number of donation centers set up around Port Elizabeth, at which pre-made EcoBricks can be dropped off. There is also a “Swap Shop” program in effect, which operates much like a thrift store: people drop off donations – such as used clothes or household items – which can then be purchased not with money, but with pre-made EcoBricks. These two programs help ensure that there is a steady flow of donated supplies to help construct the primary school. It also helps raise awareness, and garners more community support.
The EcoBrick Exchange has partnered with many local organizations, and has also been selected as a finalist in the SAB Foundation Social Innovation Awards.
For more information on The EcoBrick Exchange, check out their website or watch the video below about how they are being used in South African communities.