In Argentina, I meet a hero. A trash collector, looked down on and called a “cartonero,” he actually is an ecological soldier passionate about recycling, but not because it is fashionable but out the pure necessity to survive. And he has restored my faith in humanity.
Alfredo is greeting me by the door, smiling. Ever since we first made contact, via email, he has seemed to be smiling. He has opened his doors in Iguazu, and so I have crossed the entire country of Brazil to get to Argentina to get to know him and his very special initiative. As I follow the maroon, rust-colored dirt roads leading out of the town of Puerto Iguazu, I see very few houses, but the one I’m about to find is one of a kind. It is entirely made up of plastic bottles.
The story is simple. Out of necessity, finding himself out of work, Alfredo had to live off trash he collects. Like many Argentinians in the beginning of the 2000s he became a “cartonero.” I don’t think his smile can really turn into a frown, but there’s a hint of bitterness when he remembers those times: ” We didn’t even have resources to provide for our families. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to fulfill this basic task of providing food for my family, I just couldn’t.”
And with all his stubbornness and will power he fought to find a way out. Just like many extraordinary things, this project was also born by chance. His daughter wanted a doll house for Christmas. And when Alfredo realized he couldn’t afford it, he decided to build one. This was the start of the development of an extraordinarily inventive construction technique.
By putting together plastic bottles, particularly soda bottles, he invented a kind of brick which is both cheap and ecological. His mission is clear : “We are convinced we can find social solutions to the humble that are also ecological. Like removing trash from the streets and thus avoiding that the planet is transformed in a huge trash yard. At the same time, this is a technique that can be easily learned by anyone.” For the past years, Alfredo has refined his product to make it more resistant. He considers himself a kind of Mad Trash Scientist. He is thankful to have received technical advice from certain visitors, but mostly he did it himself. For instance, one of the criticisms he received was whether the bottles were fire-resistant. Of course they’re not, but they’re certainly not as inflammable like wood. In any case, Alfredo developed an anti-fire system by simply filling them with water or dirt, so that when the bottle wrinkles with fire, the substance inside will put it out. Ingenious, to say the least. Alfredo tells me that there was of course criticism, the fire proof being only one of them. But what about the life span? The answer lies in the material chosen. He chose a particular kind of bottle, not the mineral water one, but the soft drink bottle. The plastic is thicker and it’s covered by a solar filter, to protect the drink. “This fact is very helpful, because the bottle’s shape stays untouched when exposed to the sun. If the bottles are covered, I’d say that their life span could be practically eternal. When we make the walls, we note that the bottles get dry, but they won’t get wrecked. So, if we cover them with, let’s say, 1cm of plaster, they won’t be exposed to the sun and thus last forever. If they’re not covered, I calculate that they could last for 150, 200 years.” I cannot help but be amazed how such simple processes can be so effective. But there is still more to keep me in awe.
As I’m taken around the “Bottle House,” Alfredo continues his story. His grin opens up even more as he speaks. His speech is well-measured and precise. Quite eloquent, I would even say. His objective now is to disseminate his construction technique to whomever may need it. He literally makes tours all over Latin America to teach the poor communities how to build houses made out of bottles. So far he’s helped to build 59 houses all over Latin America: “We bring our tools, build a model of the house and teach them the building technique. Let me just tell you, a house, to us poor people, is a cabin, a compartment of 4mx5m, 3mx5m, 4mx8m, all depending of the economic situation. That compartment is divided in two, normally by a curtain. On one side you have the dormitory, where everyone sleeps. On the other side of the curtain you have the common room, the kitchen, the living room, dining room, all in one. It’s not the conventional house with several rooms separated. What we teach is how to build a model that can be expanded by adding one, and then another, and then another. We want to teach them that it’s possible for them to have that conventional house, given a bit of tenacity and hard work .” A viable solution for housing problems around the world.
One of Alfredo’s greatest achievement was in the Paraguayan city of Concepcion. He drove the 1200 kilometers in his 1985 Renault 12. When he got there, students had collected more than 18000 bottles. After ten days of work, they had made a 50 m2 house with all the rooms of a normal house. It’s the biggest he’s built and it was declared a building of national interest by the Paraguayan government. It now functions normally as a tourist information office. “This is a house that I’m really proud of. A lot of young people worked there that learned the construction technique really quickly. And a lot of them brought the knowledge back to their places and even used it to build green houses, for cultivation, since the material is translucent, so that the sunlight can come in. For me it was a fantastic experience, it gave me true joy! The people, once they learn it, they’ll never forget, it’s like riding a bike.”
To finance his ventures, he accepts donations and he opened a museum house in Iguazu. And the bottle house construction model is not enough, his inventiveness goes even further. He came up with a lot of products that can help people all over the world. All of them are made using recycled products, from shopping bags made out of plastic stripes to children’s toys made with cans and bottle sofas – the range of this man’s creativity is immense. My personal favorite of his creations is in fact a very practical one. According to Alfredo, one of the poor peoples’ greatest problems is that they normally sleep on the floor, even if with a small mattress. “Humidity gets the best out of your health, especially for children growing up. To face this problem, he used plastic bottles to make a kind of Sommier bed. An innovative and pioneering idea that solves such a simple but serious problem.
Finally we reach the end of our tour. Alfredo is currently building his greatest project. A house built with 24000 bottles. A spacious place, with all the commodities of a comfortable home, so visitors can admire that it is possible to live well in an environmentally friendly construction.
As a curious traveller, I can’t express how lucky I feel for having found this man. This encounter has filled me with hope and my faith in human kind has been completely restored. Such generosity and such humbleness. At the same time such boldness and tenacity to overcome the difficulties of life using creativity, imagination, skill and talent. One can simply not be indifferent to something like this. I must thank Alfredo, not only for receiving me with kindness and patience. But for something far more valuable than that. For giving me hope that the future might be brighter.