The Unexpected Way Plastic Bottle Pollution Is Helping the Rainforest

One nonprofit is turning it into roofing, fencing, and livelihoods for people in Ecuador.

Plastic bottles were cut into strips and heat-welded together to form the plastic thatch roof shown here. (Photo: David Saiia)

Dec 10, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Five years ago, strategic management professor David Saiia traveled with his students from New York’s Ithaca College to Ecuador for a project creating sustainable livelihoods in conservation regions disrupted by logging and poaching. But the team noticed another problem that was all around them: plastic bottles.

“I would find them in the most remote places imaginable,” Saiia said. “I would be on the 2,000-year-old Yumbo Calunco trails and find plastic waste."

According to Saiia, more than 2 billion plastic bottles are discarded around the world each year.

His students at the time challenged him: What could they build from all that plastic? Together, they came up with rudimentary drawings for a machine that could cut plastic bottles into strips to use as roof thatching in a rainforest region that sees precipitation nearly every day.

"Thatching is a successful roofing method used on literally every continent, because it works really well," said Saiia, who explained that land pressure has reduced the availability of natural thatch, forcing people to turn to solid roofing materials such as metal and fiberglass. While those solutions work, they are in some ways inferior to thatch. “In equatorial-zone communities, this type of roofing is very hot in the sun and very noisy in the rain—two major strikes against them for creating comfortable living environments."

Students from Carnegie Mellon's Engineers Without Borders program, who spent this past summer working with Reuse Everything in Ecuador. (Photo: David Saiia) 

So the team decided to flatten the plastic bottles, cut them up into spiral strips, and heat-weld the strips together to create continuous ribbons of plastic that could be used as thatch. The end result is plastic thatch that vents heat like natural thatch and is quiet in the rain. The clear material also allows natural light into structures. It's also much stronger than natural thatch, according to Saiia, and the plastic stripping can be used to make agricultural fencing and siltation barriers.

Cofounders David Saiia and Vananh Le started the eco-friendly program last year. (Photo: David Saiia) 

"It is amazing how easily adaptable the plastic packaging is," Saiia said, adding that he built his first small plastic thatch roof five years ago in Ecuador, which is still in "great shape."

Last year, he cofounded the Reuse Everything Institute, Inc., a nonprofit committed to developing recycling technologies using alternative building materials and employing local residents. He plans to combine this technology with a training program on entrepreneurship, then deploy a microloan program to empower participants with the opportunity to own and run their own business converting waste plastic into products.

“We want to use the nonprofit as a franchising hub,” he said. “The long-term objective is to self-replicate the program wherever there is waste plastic and the need for solid middle-class jobs."

This past summer, REII partnered with 11 students from Carnegie Mellon's Engineers Without Borders—an initiative to send engineering students abroad to support humanitarian projects—to process more than 3,000 plastic bottles and build a 260-square-foot hexagonal roof.

Saiia estimates that they need about $240,000 for the next stage of development and to build a new prototype, but fund-raising has been challenging because of the organization’s new and limited track record.

Still, Saiia says it has not stopped trying to come up with innovative methods of reuse and is also pursuing a wine product made from coffee tree cherries.

“REII’s work is not about recycling; it is about giving an example of what sustainability should be,” said Saiia’s cofounder, Vananh Le. “When you have a plan to distribute to aspiring entrepreneurs a simple and powerful business idea to convert waste plastic into affordable construction materials, the potential for transformative change is huge.”