Imagine solving environmental, social, educational and financial problems for an impoverished community all at the same time and with one project. A project that truly realized those ambitious goals would need to identify a community in need and put that community’s people to work in addressing those needs – getting money circulating locally while producing positive social and environmental effects. This bold and powerful idea drove Josh Talmon, Zach Balle and Heenal Rajani to leave successful entrepreneurial careers and brought them together as Hug It Forward, a 100% non-profit organization devoted entirely to building bottle schools in Guatemala and other rural Central American communities.
Hug It Forward’s bottle schools are small schoolhouses built with “eco-bricks” made from discarded plastic bottles filled with inorganic trash. The schools are professionally built and structurally sound, conforming to all regular standards and code. The bottles are used purely for insulation, not for structural integrity. What makes these bottle schools so special?
- Hug It Forward volunteers teach and empower Central American communities to build them instead of doing the work themselves and moving on.
- The bottles and inorganic trash that fills them are collected by residents from streets, fields and riverbanks in the community. Harvesting local trash improves local health, air and water quality, and fosters the vital tourism industry.
- All materials – lumber, rebar, concrete, tools, etc. – are purchased locally to infuse money into the local economy.
- Labor is provided by locals. This includes everyone from young children collecting and carrying the bottles to skilled carpenters and welders.
- Children help build their own schools and learn about subjects like construction, environmental awareness and waste management even before the schools open.
- Communities are united and leaders are identified during the project.
The idea of using trash-filled bottles as building insulation was conceived by the Guatemalan organization Pura Vida. Hug it Forward realized this method’s potential, and has been empowering rural communities in Guatemala to use it since 2009. To date, 24 bottle schools have been completed (including one in El Salvador), and more are in various stages of development, including fundraising.
Hug It Forward operates under the philosophy that providing something a community needs – like a bottle school – is good, but empowering the locals to use the same methods to fill that need themselves in the future is even better. They are 100% non-profit and are backed by several conscious business partners who assist in covering expenses and overhead, so 100% of public donations are applied to bottle school projects. Voluntourism efforts are also underway for those interested in having a direct experience with their donation. To learn more or get involved, visit or donate to Hug It Forward.