As an environmental volunteer, I typically work with the various levels of schools in both of my communities, Lagunilla and Tlaxco. This means everything from those adorable little kindergarteners you might have seen me post pictures of, all the way to university students. I’ve focused the majority of my projects on bio-intensive garden construction, such as the incredibly efficient Keyhole Garden, garden competitions between groups of students, little reforestation projects and very cool medicinal gardens.
That said, my most recent project was a bit of a tangent. Eco-Benches. Who would have thought they would be such a challenge, at times literally the bane of my existence, yet also incredibly satisfying?
You might be thinking…Tess…the Tess that I know?…built benches?…so what? What is this city-loving, decently street savvy girl even doing down there? Benches? Well, let me tell you, these mighty little benches are a lot more impressive than they sound. They fall under the “eco-tecnia” category, which essentially is the construction of a technology using completely sustainable means, thus providing the same function minus the danger to the environment or our health.
An eco-bench, or ecological bench, is just that. It provides the same function as a bench, but does so much more. The structure of the bench is mainly composed of dozens or hundreds of plastic bottles, depending on the size, which are filled to the brim (and then some) with trash. Once filled, they serve as an incredibly sturdy eco-brick, which can be used to build any number of things including a house! So not only does this project get kids out and about, running around town, collecting plastic bottles and picking up litter along their way, but it teaches them that it is possible to reuse trash and turn it into something useful, even beautiful.
And that’s just what we did. Once our bottles were collected and stuffed, we then moved onto phase two – getting that pile of bottles to resemble not one, but THREE benches. Let me just stop you here and tell you that to attempt to build three benches at once is kinda a big deal. And even more so, to build these benches as part of a competition between three groups of ten rowdy 11 and 12 year olds? AKA running back and forth, monitoring and assisting 30 kids at once…not easy, and certainly not easy for someone with my level of patience.
Anyway, before this turns into a story of Tess vs 30 mud-covered 6th graders in a midst of a water fight after accidentally hitting (and bursting) the school’s underground water pipe with a shovel, let me continue.
So, phase two…this involved creating “Cob” which is basically a mixture made from soil, sand and water, which hardens into clay rock. We outlined where the benches would go, laid down a layer of gravel to act as a filter for rainwater, as well as a hard base in case the soil softens under rainy conditions, and laid on a thick slab of this muddy clay mixture. Using this mixture, we were able to stack 36 3L Coke bottles per bench (in case you didn’t know, Coca-Cola is a mega-popular phenomenon in Mexico) to form the structures. After waiting a week for drying, we returned to apply two layers of eco-cement (made of sand, “cal,” pulverized bricks and water), smoothed those babies out, let them dry another week… and finito!
In the end, we had three benches, which took about five days to construct (two organizational days, which included running around their pueblo of 1,000 people with wheel barrows collecting sufficient soil and sand, and three construction days).
After the project, I did a quick evaluation of the students to find that all of them, every single one, felt that they now had the knowledge to build eco-benches on their own and were comfortable with this construction technique. They all also expressed interest in constructing more of them around their community. To me, that is the biggest success.
Not only did they have a greater understanding of how trash, one of the most profound environmental issues we face, could be reused, but they also know how to create and utilize eco-cement as a replacement for normal cement, which releases 1 ton of CO2 per ton of cement created. That’s a win-win in my environmental handbook.
Furthermore, these benches were built in an area in front of the school, which was previously used as a dusty underutilized dump site for trash, but had the potential to serve as a beautiful entrance to the school and lunch spot as kids wait for their parents to bring their snacks. All it needed was a little love. So now, we have 70 little trees growing and three benches in that area, all with the hope that students will use and appreciate it – giving them more of a reason to be outside and providing an outdoor space to enjoy!
(I need to reiterate that trying to control and keep 30 kids on task for multiple hours a day for five days was fun and a lot of hard work. These kids were champions and loved the dust, mud, sweat and tears that this project involved. But I must also say that lord, oh lord, the boys in this class tested my patience to the fullest! I’d like to think I came out a better person because of it….:p)