House made of 1200 plastic bottles

What can you make out of 1200 empty drinks bottles? Well, I recently visited the “Casa de las Botellas” (House of Bottles) in Puerto Iguazu in the North-East of Argentina, a project by Alfredo Alberto Santa Cruz demonstrating how everyday rubbish like plastic bottles and tetrapaks can be used to create housing. I had the pleasure of a guided tour by Alfredo, whose enthusiasm for the project was infectious and inspiring.

So, how do you go about making a structurally sound house made of bottles? Well, the basic ‘brick’ is made from two large empty PET drinks bottles. The top half of one of the bottles is removed and the bottom half is slotted over the top of the whole bottle and secured with a bolt. Voila! This gives you a sealed ‘brick’ (air is a great insulator) that will stack to create blocks or panels set in wooden frames. These panels or blocks can be made weatherproof by encasing them in a layer of unfolded tetrapak carton material and a layer of mesh onto which a layer of cement is added. This seemed like a more recognisable building block to me, coming from rather cold and wet climes.

Meanwhile the roof is constructed using ’tiles’ made from unfolded tetrapak cartons attached to wooden batons. The layers of plastic and aluminium in tetrapak are, of course, waterproof and in order to extend its lifespan the roof is finished off with more plastic bottles (that have been split open lengthways).

Alfredo has also created a solar water heater using plastic bottles. His imagination and innovation didn’t stop there – the garden walls were built using bottles filled with soil. The steps we walked up to the house on were built using bottles filled with sand. The chairs and tables in the house were made from surprisingly comfortable (if a little squeaky) bottles. The curtains were made from bottle tops. Bags and baskets were woven from bottles shredded using a simple hand tool.

The “Casa de las Botellas” has the potential to tick alot of boxes; readily available material, very cheap construction, helping to reduce landfill, providing better housing for people who cannot afford conventional construction techniques. Of course this method wouldn’t suit skyscraper construction and won’t last as long as a house built from bricks and mortar… but with each bottle panel being repairable and having an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years or so, it is certainly an interesting proposition.

So what happens to drinks bottles? When you’ve drunk your fizzy pop you have four options:

1) Throw the bottle in the bin. More often than not it will end up in landfill where it will degrade in about 1000 years, or it’ll be incinerated. This does however depend on where you live. For example, in Argentina there’s a chance the ‘cartoneros’ will fish it out of the rubbish and sell it to be recycled.

2) Reuse it for the same purpose. Whether you refill it yourself or live in a country where there are ‘returnable’ bottles. For example, in Argentina Coca-Cola use returnable 1.5 litre plastic bottles that you can take back to your supermarket. This has minimal impact.

3) Reuse it for something else. You could make a house, or maybe your kids want to make a spaceship. The thing about the spaceship is that unless it’s an extraordinarily good spaceship, it’s likely to end up in landfill after not too long. However, if it means you don’t have to buy a spaceship from a shop, it’s a great thing to do for your wallet and for the environment.

4) Recycle it. Traditionally PET has been recycled into fleece material. In the UK, Marks and Spencers staff wear clothes made from our old drinks bottles. However, more companies now are turning old PET bottles into new PET bottles too. Recycling uses energy, but according to Zero Waste Scotland, “Nearly 2000kg of CO2 equivalents are saved by recycling 1000kg of clear plastic bottles (PET) compared to sending them to landfill (Remade).”

Would I live in a house made of plastic bottles? My initial reaction is “I’m not sure”. One of the big challenges we face is re-evaluating the way we look at things… the first step being to start questioning some of the preconceptions that we have automatically adopted from our lifestyles. For example I think it could be said that the majority of people tend to think of ‘rubbish’ based products being a novelty or only necessary or beneficial to poorer folk. Whereas infact, recognising the inherent value of the items we consider to be waste is a trick we are missing. So, would I live in a house made of bottles? I’d certainly give it a go!