Every year, about half a trillion new plastic bottles are produced, and many billions end up in a landfill, the sea or the environment.
Although one of the best solutions would be to find an alternative to plastic bottles, which can be used on a wide scale, one man is doing something productive with the plastic problem.
Tateh Breica, a Sahrawi refugee living in a camp in Tindouf, Algeria, is building homes for other refugees out of plastic bottles filled with sand.
Thousands of Sahrawi people, an indigenous group of the Western Sahara, were displaced to Algeria in 1975 during the Western Sahara War, and many have remained there since.
“I was born in a sun-dried brick house,” Tateh says. “The roof was made of sheets of zinc – one of the best heat conductors. Me and my family had to endure high temperatures, rain and sandstorms that would sometimes take the roof off.
The plastic bottle houses possess several qualities that equip them for the brutal ecosystem of the Algerian hamada, the desert of all deserts. The walls are made of sand-filled plastic bottles, cement and a mixture of earth and straw that acts as thermal insulation. Compared with the traditional sun-dried bricks, which fall apart in the rains that batter the region from time to time, they are very tough.
Their circular shape serves a dual purpose: not only does it stop dunes forming during sandstorms as happens with square houses, it also – along with the white-painted exterior – reduces the impact of solar rays by up to 90%.
A double roof with a ventilation space and two windows set at different heights to encourage air flow mean that temperatures are 5C lower than in the other houses in the camps.
Much of the scheme’s success lies in its low-cost and ecological benefits. Each house needs about 6,000 bottles and takes a team of four people a week to build.
The houses not only help solve the challenging weather, but also tackle another major problem: plastic waste.
According to National Geographic, more than 80 percent of recyclable plastic bottles end up in landfills each year, according to National Geographic. At the refugee camps around Tindouf, plastic bottles are usually tossed in the trash and not recycled.
“We don’t have modern recycling like they do in other countries, but we can make use of all the tonnes of plastic,” says Tateh, who studied renewable energy at Algiers University followed by a masters in energy efficiency at the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria thanks to an Erasmus Mundus grant from the EU.
According to Hamdi Bukhari, the UNHCR’s representative in Algeria, “the project is really innovative and beneficial, not just for the people who live in the houses but also when it comes to providing work and for the environment.”
The 25 houses will be given to people with physical disabilities, mental illnesses, and families in particularly vulnerable circumstances. A UNHCR technical committee will visit the camps to attend the inauguration ceremony and to study how the construction techniques can be used elsewhere.