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Walls made of plastic bottles instead of bricks. Given how mercilessly my nephews harass me (rightfully, regretfully) for my prematurely failing memory, I nonetheless remember clearly the first time I saw this remarkably simple-yet-innovative idea in action.

Back in 2008, I was visiting the rainforest hippie enclave of San Marcos, accessible only by boat and nestled along the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. As I casually wandered the mostly-dirt paths leading from the docks, I passed by a pyramid-shaped meditation retreat and then, an Italian vegetarian restaurant – a charming culinary alternative to the abundantly-common rice, beans and yucca, minus that one evening they were showing Sex in the City movie, volume blaring, for a dining room filled with backpackers apparently needing a dose of ‘reality’.

There, along the path, I saw plastic 1-liter water bottles, filled with dirt and stacked like bricks, held together with wire mess and forming solid walls. Most was covered with plaster of some sort, but windows of exposed bottles had been created to demonstrate the innovative building technique.

Empty plastic bottles have become a locally-abundant and renewable building resource (not, by the way, a good thing, a fact to which my colleagues at the Plastic Pollution Coalition would readily attest). But given that our culture’s current addiction to single-use containers, I’m grateful that innovative community activists are creating hope from heaps.

San Diego, CA-based Hug it forward is one of those leaders. Earlier this year, I met and became friends with of their founders, Heenal Rajani while attending a TedX event in Goa, India. Heenal wasn’t presenting, but he should have been, with his Oxford-accented enthusiasm utterly contagious, and tales of success utterly uplifting.

Since 2008, Hug it Forward has helped build schools in 14 communities across Guatemala, one of which –  built for about $10,000 – serves nearly 300 students. The entire community pitches into the construction, creating a real sense of local ownership. Impressively, H.I.F. uses fully 100% of donations for on-the-ground work, because they have a separate, private source to cover overhead and operating expenses. They coordinate ‘voluntourism’ missions and have also developed a free how-to-build-a-bottle-school handbook.

If you’re in NYC this coming Saturday, January 7, check out their Bryant Park Hotel fundraiser event!

In the meantime, their new video gives a great taste of their efforts, successes, and vision. Enjoy.


  • Heenal Rajani

    Thanks Mike! Great article! :)

    If anyone wants more info about Bottle Schools and how to get involved, feel free to email me heenal AT hugitforward DOT org

    interesting that you should mention the plastic pollution coalition… i have been trying to get a hold of them – looks like there might be areas of synergy and potential for collaboration! could you connect us? :)

    thanks and hugs


    • MichaelStraus

      Heenal … I’ll make the intro bet. you and Danielle at PPC. /// Michael

  • David Haas


    I have a question about your blog.  Please email me!



  • Pablo Barrera

    They will be speaking at tedxguatemalacity! http://Www.tedxguatemalacity.com