Natural resources student turns trash into building materials

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. In today’s society, people are urged more and more to follow these principles. Despite advances in sustainability practices and the increasing number of recycling programs, piles of trash get dumped in landfills every day. Sometimes it seems like whole towns could be built out of the items we throw away.

What if it were actually possible to create buildings out of trash?

Through the efforts of the nonprofit organization Long Way Home, that idea is becoming reality. Lars Battle of Alexandria, Va., a student in the Master of Natural Resources program in Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region campus in Falls Church, Va., is working with the organization, which is based in Guatemala. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer there in 2002, helping organize community development councils at the village level in a predominantly indigenous municipality in the Guatemala’s northwestern highlands.


Lars Battle poses for a picture with Helen, a local resident and future student at the Escuela Tecnico Maya in Paxan, Guatemala. Lars Battle poses for a picture with Helen, a local resident and future student at the Escuela Tecnico Maya in Paxan, Guatemala.

“The goal of our organization is to break the cycle of poverty through a community development strategy that brings local residents, particularly youth, together to learn about ecofriendly living, appropriate sustainable technologies, and improved waste management solutions,” said Battle, who served on Long Way Home’s board of directors from 2007 to 2011.

Battle helped construct Parque Chimiya, a recreational and ecological park in the community of Comalapa. The 5-acre property, which serves as the center of Long Way Home’s operations in Guatemala, now has a soccer field, basketball court, playground, community kitchen, tree nursery, nature trail, and terraced organic gardens.

The park’s small admission fee is waived for visitors who bring used plastic bottles packed with inorganic trash. Long Way Home uses the thousands of bottles collected each year as building materials. 

“By allowing free admission to those who bring trash bottles and by building with dirt, trash, and tires, we are demonstrating alternatives to traditional waste disposal practices,” Battle said.


Children in Paxan are contributing to their school's construction by packing plastic wrappers into trash bottles, which will then be used as building material. Children in Paxan are contributing to their school's construction by packing plastic wrappers into trash bottles, which will then be used as building material.

Since 2009, Battle has worked on Escuela Tecnico Maya, a 17-building primary and vocational school in the village of Paxan, which is being constructed using alternative building techniques and waste material. Earth-filled tires form the walls of the school buildings, glass bottles become skylights, and trash bottle fillers line the roof and seams between the tires.

The building strategy is inherently low cost. “With our materials cost greatly reduced, 80 percent of our construction budget pays for local labor, providing employment and keeping more money circulating in the community,” Battle said.

Since the project’s inception in 2009, a group of volunteers working with local laborers has transformed more than 63 tons of garbage into construction materials. By early 2011, 2,700 tires, 2,220 glass bottles, and nearly 3,700 trash-packed bottles had been used in the walls and roofs of the new school’s classrooms.

The materials and construction techniques used result in structures that are robust — the buildings successfully withstood a hurricane in October 2011 — yet flexible, making them more earthquake resistant. The earthen walls absorb passive solar energy to warm the buildings at night and cool them during the heat of the day. As an added bonus, the tires used in construction are no longer left to collect standing water, which can serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carry malaria and other diseases.


The vocational school and latrines in Paxan. The vocational school and latrines in Paxan will be covered with a dirt and fiber mixture, followed by a finish of limestone stucco to conceal the waste materials for aesthetic purposes and to prevent any inorganic materials from leaching into the environment.

“We believe that by creating a market for useful waste materials, we can change community perspectives of solid waste from something that has traditionally been seen as a societal burden into a resource with potential,” said Battle, who wants to find opportunities to work internationally on integrated conservation and development projects after he completes his degree. “Most residents cannot easily afford standard homes, but teaching them the skills needed to apply green building techniques will provide much cheaper housing for the community.”

When the school opens in 2014, it will offer programs in environmental conservation, skilled trades, small business administration, and alternative construction, in addition to a traditional curriculum. The ultimate hope of these courses is to graduate students better able to navigate the demands of their area and utilize available resources to bring their families out of poverty.

  • Written by Samantha Huff of Christiansburg, Va., a sophomore English major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Lynn Davis or 540-231-6157.

About Long Way Home

Long Way Home’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty among youth in developing communities by creating educational opportunities, cultivating civic interaction, and encouraging healthy lifestyles.

In addition to alternative construction projects, efforts include bringing running water to rural communities and providing families with safe and affordable wood-burning stoves. Educational outreach is integrated into every program.

Visit Long Way Home’s website and blog for details.

Project gains international acclaim

    A worker secures the roof above four composting latrines in Paxan built from plastic trash bottles, bamboo, and chicken wire on top of a concrete slab.

Chosen from 800 nominees, the Escuela Tecnico Maya project placed third in the 2010 BBC World Challenge, a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses that show enterprise and innovation at a grassroots level. Although the project did not win, the building techniques used have global implications. “With mountains of waste available for reuse, the project is already providing training and employment,” said Lars Battle, a Virginia Tech graduate student working on the project.

  • View Long Way Home’s video entry on the organization’s website.

The Escuela Tecnico Maya project also placed first in the Small Charity of the Year category at the CLASSY Awards after it was voted a top 10 finalist by the public and then chosen by a panel of industry professionals. The CLASSY Awards are sponsored by StayClassy, a fundraising platform that helps nonprofits leverage the power of social media to raise money and grow their donor base.

  • View the awards presentation, acceptance speech, and entry video online.

Share this


Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives