GRANADOS, Guatemala, April 22, 2010— -- In the mountains of Guatemala, Laura Kutner is changing the tiny village of Granados with a message in a bottle. The 25-year-old from Portland, Ore., did something incredible for this town. She built a school with no funding, little experience, and a crazy idea -- construct the building out of old plastic water bottles.
The old school building was crumbling, but the poor village couldn't afford the concrete and steel for new construction. Students and town officials were stuck, until Kutner, an endlessly-optimistic Peace Corps volunteer, had an idea.
"Initially it was a dream," Kutner said. "It was 100 percent a dream. I came in here and thought, 'What if we can actually do this?'"
It's not the first time water bottles have been put to an impressive use. The Plastiki, a boat made entirely from recycled plastic, is currently crossing the Pacific Ocean to raise awareness about the problem of plastic pollution.
Kutner had heard of water bottles being used for large-scale projects elsewhere, and since the village didn't have much money and needed the help, she convinced the skeptical school principal to let her try it.
The plan called for waste plastic bottles to form the interior of the school's walls. Covered with a thin layer of cement and paint, visitors would never know about the bottles, except for a spot on one wall left to reveal the unique construction.
The idea is simple enough, but the project proved enormous. Bottles had to be stuffed with plastic bags to give them strength, and then wrapped together into blocks by using chicken wire.
"The stronger, the more stuffed [the bottle] is, the more supportive in the wall," said Kutner.
Stuffing the 6,000 bottles required for the school took months of grueling work. Each student was asked to find and fill at least 20 bottles, so children scoured their village for old bottles and plastic.
In the process, the kids cleaned up the ditches and hillsides so thoroughly that they started running out of garbage and had to go to neighboring villages. The students share pride over their new school and a new-found excitement about picking up garbage.
"You don't need a lot of money, and the best thing is that they worked together," said the school's principal, according to an ABC News translation.
Local officials say that the school building is structurally sound, and the mayor of Granados is even talking about building a bottle sidewalk, if they can find enough trash.
For Laura Kutner, it's proof that it sometimes pays off to listen to your dreams.
"You've got to trust your crazy ideas because they can do awesome things," she said.