Every year billions of plastic bottles are recycled — but how are those bottles used?  In Ecuador bottles are building communities through several programs that turn the repurposed plastic into meaningful neighborhood projects and business ventures.

PET Bottles Become a New Library in South America

Santa Marianita, in the Manabí province of Ecuador, hugs the Pacific along the country’s western shoreline. Verónica Reed, an architect at Sustainable Design Studios, came to this small community with a mission: to make a place for its people to read and borrow books. 

“Our office specializes in projects with environmental design and environmental components,” Reed explains. “There was a need for a library to complement the school building, which is short on space and overcrowded.”

So her firm reached out to Coca-Cola for help. Coca-Cola partnered with Sustainable Design Studios before on an earlier project in Quito, Ecuador.  Coca-Cola agreed again, and so the Santa Marianita library project was born. 

The building plan required securing some 2,600 polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. The design team then wanted to string the bottles together inside the wooden structure of the new library and create an airy, opaque section of the building, but this was more difficult than it sounds.

The problem: Reed required bottles in a uniform shape, size and condition for her design, which involved fusing the 2,600 PET bottles with traditional Ecuadorean building materials of giant bamboo and locally sourced wood. Because used bottles are subject to prior wear and tear, their nonuniformity presented real challenges for the design team. 

To solve the problem, Coca-Cola donated unused bottles, many of which had been turned down for consumer use at their plants. But “for each bottle used, we collected post-consumer bottles from the community to go to a PET recycling program,” Reed says. “From what I understand, Coca-Cola was able to collect about twice the number of bottles used. Since the projects had a social component, communities were very interested in collecting the bottles to serve a good cause, and this helped divert those bottles from the landfill.”

And Sustainable Design Studios isn’t finished yet. The next Santa Marianita project, which is slated for early 2013, will repurpose an additional 1,000 plastic bottles to make a vertical garden for community agriculture. 

Playgrounds, Bus Stops and More

The reincarnation of the humble plastic bottle is taking shape in other areas of Ecuador as well.

Some 8,500 bottles make up a brand-new Quito playground. At the Jardin Botánico, crystal-clear bottles paired with brightly painted red ones blend together to form a slide-and-play.

Not far from that playground, graphic designer Rodney Verdezoto teamed up with Coke to turn his passion for working with recycled materials into bus stops, signs and trash cans constructed from reclaimed PETs. 

“We are beginning to value the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling PET bottles,” says Pierangela Sierra, senior marketing manager for Coca-Cola in Ecuador. “The awareness of the relevance of this action is growing, and people are willing to be part of this collective movement in order to preserve our planet.” He continues, “2012 was the starting point of many different initiatives to recycle bottles, both private and public. From now on the entire country will be committed to make these projects work.”

One of the people showing that commitment is Ana Isabel Carrion, a Coca-Cola employee and a volunteer on Verdezoto’s recycling project.

“It was great to see the community come together to collect the bottles, paint, do gardening and beautify their community with pride,” says Carrion. “The sense of communal pride that came from that effort is hard to quantify.”

Focusing on a Second Life for Bottles

Recycled bottles have been part of Coca-Cola’s policy since at least 1991, when the company first introduced a recycled beverage container to its packaging line.

In 2007, Coca-Cola debuted its Drink2Wear fashion apparel. The program has since expanded to include tote bags and caps, and has sold more than 1 million products to the tune of $15 million in sales. Through this initiative, more than 5 million PETs have been diverted from the waste stream and are now living new lives. 

There are more than 150,000 Coke recycling bins throughout the U.S. and Canada. In cooperation with Keep America Beautiful, more than 20,000 bins are used on college campuses and various sporting, musical and festival events.

Meanwhile, Recycling Education Vehicles travel where consumers live, work and play. The goal is to introduce people to a new way of thinking in terms of recycling. If they understand they have a role and that their plastic can contribute to community improvements instead of ending up in landfills, they become more committed to recycling.

“Communities have started to see the bottles not as trash but as valuable material that can be used creatively in many different ways,” says Carrion. “Plastic bottles can actually become construction materials and not only decorative elements. They have started to think outside the box, finding ways to transform them and reuse them.”