ISLA DE OMETEPE, Nicaragua — Isla de Ometepe, or Ometepe Island, has been hailed as an Eden-like island paradise, and it floats beneath Nicaragua’s second highest volcano, Concepción. The island is gorgeous and remote by any standards, but with a population of 29,000 and 40,000 tourist visits each year, the pristine island is also home to more waste than ever before. Hacienda Mérida, a traveler’s destination on Ometepe Island, is pioneering a project that uses this waste to literally build from the ground up with a model based on social enterprise.
While at first glance this popular destination looks just like another friendly locale, it quickly becomes evident that a movement is afoot here. Weary travelers rest on couches and chairs made with building blocks of mosaiced plastic bottles. In the background sits a freestanding classroom built with hundreds of the same. Alvaro Molina, the owner of Hacienda Mérida and pioneer of this project, eagerly tells The Borgen Project that these are his beloved eco-bricks.
These eco-bricks literally and figuratively form the foundation of the hostel’s social enterprise.
While beauty abounds on the Ometepe Island, so does litter, as any traveler might notice upon arrival. With no solid waste infrastructure, trash is either burned, buried or deposited into the lake. Alvaro explains that these eco-bricks are created by filling plastic bottles with other non-degradable materials, such as chip bags or wrappers. The bottles are stuffed until they are sturdy enough to serve as building materials.
An influx of tourists to the island has signaled an increase of this non-biodegradable waste, especially in the form of these plastic water bottles.
Since 2008, Alvaro and the staff of Hacienda Mérida have encouraged community members to create eco-bricks by stuffing litter, such as plastic bags, into these plastic bottles until they are solid building blocks. Hacienda Mérida purchases each eco-brick for 20 cents, thus generating employment for residents in the surrounding area and saving money on otherwise extremely costly building materials.
Alvaro and his staff have developed other ways to stimulate the production of eco-bricks, like offering use of the hostel’s high-speed wi-fi in exchange for the bricks.
These eco-bricks have provided the infrastructure for the Ometepe Bilingual School, which houses a kindergarten classroom where travelers can volunteer during their stay.
The goal of the social enterprise is triple-sided: to reduce the amount of consumer pollution on the island, to provide a source of income for community members and to build infrastructure that would otherwise be costly, especially for a remote island location.
The result is a community-oriented hostel, which seemingly serves locals as much as it does foreigners.
This infrastructure of inclusiveness and sustainability thus manifests in the eco-bricks, and in the process of creating them. While Alvaro’s eco-bricks are turning trash to treasure on this small island, other eco-brickers around the world are hard at work. The globally trending social enterprise is facilitated by the Global Ecobrick Alliance (GEA), which aims to provide support for any community that wants to explore eco-bricking.
The hope of both Alvaro and the Alliance at large is to mobilize citizens around the world to turn trash to infrastructure and build a waste-free world.
– Laurel Klafehn