It is a common proverb that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and in Algeria, one refugee is showing the truth behind this saying.
Tateh Lehbib is an engineer and a Sahrawi refugee. At 28, Lehbib has been a refugee his entire life, one of more than 165,000 Sahrawis displaced from their native Morocco by the Western Saharan War that began in 1975. The majority of the Sahrawis now live in five encampments in southern Algeria.
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The idea to build plastic bottle homes came out of Lehbib’s desire to provide shelter for his grandmother in a desert region that can get hotter than 110 degrees Fahrenheit and is also susceptible to heavy rain.
"I wanted her not to suffer so much from the heat, and to lead a better, more comfortable life," he told the Middle East Eye.
The first of his shelters was made from 6,000 plastic bottles, which are filled with sand and straw, layered one on top of the other, and held together with cement mix. The plastic bottles are then covered with an additional layer of cement and limestone and painted white to reduce the impact of the sun’s rays.
According to the Middle East Eye, these structures cost about one-quarter of what it would cost to build a similar structure from mud-brick, which can cost up to €1,000 to construct. And they are 20 times more resistant, Lehbib emphasized.
The positive environmental impact of these structures is not to be ignored. At 6,000 bottles per structure and with 25 structures being built, thanks to a grant from the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, the initiative will recycle around 150,000 plastic bottles in total. That’s 150,000 plastic bottles that won’t end up in landfills, or in the world’s oceans, into which between 5 and 13 million metric tons of plastic already end up each year.
The initiative is also providing employment and education opportunities for some of the youth in the five Sahrawi camps, ThinkProgress reports, and inspiring others to get involved in collecting and reusing bottles.
“My son Alwali, a shepherd, wants to construct a similar one in the countryside of Western Sahara,” one woman told ThinkProgress.
Lehbib, for his part, hopes to be able to expand his bottle house project to other, larger communities. But he’s got a way to go before he can take the crown of most prolific bottled-house builder. Another man, in Panama, is already on his way to building an entire village out of plastic bottles.