Hug It Forward Has Built Over 300 Bottle Schools in Central America

Hug It Forward is helping children get an education in Central America while cleaning up the environment.

22.11.2019 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo via Hug It Forward
Photo via Hug It Forward

While single-use plastic might well be one of the biggest blights on our planet, there are people out there who are finding innovative ways to use it for good.

Zach Balle had a successful real estate career in Phoenix, Arizona, but despite taking home a good paycheck, he felt unfulfilled.

Taking advice from a friend to “book a flight to a country you’ve never been before,” Balle found himself in Guatemala.

While amongst a small Guatemalan community, he saw that most kids were getting lessons outside:

“If it rained, they didn’t have class that day,” Balle, told O, The Oprah Magazine back in 2012.

“I decided I wanted to build them a school which was totally unrealistic. But I knew if I could figure out a way to include the townspeople in the project we could make it happen.”

Discovering that building a new structure would cost a massive $15,000, Balle quit his job and set out for a sustainable solution.

Zach Balle

Zach Balle, Hug It Forward


Bottle Schools 

The concept of using plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash to build was initiated in Guatemala by the organization Pura Vida.

Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps volunteer who was working with the Guatemalan community of Granados to build classrooms using plastic bottles, introduced Balle to the technology in 2009 and he stuck around to help.

Local children collected empty soda bottles and stuffed them full of chip packets and candy wrappers and the resulting “eco-bricks” were arranged on chicken wire panels and covered with cement to create walls.

Bottle school

The two-classroom school used more than 5,000, plastic bottles, 2,053 pounds of trash and cost less than $6,000 to build. It now serves roughly 300 of Granados’ students.

In 2010, inspired by the community spirit the project brought and the impact that the school made, Balle, alongside friends Heenal Rajani and Joshua Talmon, set up Hug It Forward (HIF) to fund more eco-schools across Central America.

Since then, HIF says they have built 311 classrooms at a cost of around only $7,000 each.

Hug It Forward


Building Community

These bottle school projects are totally community-led, and it is the community members who volunteer all unskilled labour needed for the construction.

Before HIF issues any funding for materials, many community meetings take place and an application process must be completed.

It is also up to the community to collect at least half of the 6,500 plastic bottles needed for the construction of their new bottle school and stuff them with inorganic waste from their immediate environment — a fun mission for the kids.


The local municipality then pays for the two skilled masons needed to build the school, and the Ministry of Education pays for the teachers, ensuring that these institutions also have a stake in the project.

127 projects have seen entire communities come together to build environmentally responsible educational spaces for their future with trash that would have otherwise been left to harm the planet.

Hug It Forward also offers one-week “voluntourism” trips in collaboration with its partner organization Serve The World Today.

These trips allow donors to see exactly where their donation is going while working side-by-side with community members in the building of new bottle classrooms.

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