Tatah Lehbib was born in the Auserd refugee camp, and grew up in an adobe house and a tent in the dunes. He got the opportunity to study renewable energy at Algeria’s Tlemcen University, before winning an Erasmus scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in energy efficiency at the University of Las Palmas of Canary Islands. When he returned to his parents and community, Lehbib knew he wanted to lessen his people’s suffering.
“I have always dreamt of building a shelter for my grandma, where she can escape the burning heat, and resist the harsh seasonal floods,” he said, as he laid plastic bottles to build a house. “There were some people who could not believe this could ever work.”
Lehbib is taking a totally different approach based on science. For a month he has been building a house of plastic bottles filled with wet, compressed sand. “When I first started building, people thought I was crazy,” he said. He hopes to reach his goal by establishing a scientifically designed plan. Many of the existing houses trap the heat inside, as they were built without an understanding of ventilation. Since hot air rises, “there must be a window in the roof to let it out.”
Tatah collected most of the materials he uses from garbage. The round room he is building is half finished, with 1,300 bottles. This kind of alternative housing has many benefits, especially in a desert environment, he said. The shape will help lessen the heat, because air circulates naturally around the circular design, and the construction requires less water. It also puts otherwise wasted plastic to good use. And, he said, “One plastic bottle is stronger than 20 mud bricks — it bounces when you drop it, but bricks break apart.”
This method of assembly isn’t new — a lot of communities in the developing world are building similar houses — but the houses are still offering a needed respite for the Sahrawi. On November 1, Lehbib’s plastic bottle venture was chosen third out of 3,000 innovation projects that were presented to the U.N. This provided the UNHCR office in Tindouf with the resources to finance Lehbib to follow his dream, but this time as a first stage of a much larger process ahead. Lehbib is overjoyed at the prospects. “I have got the funding to construct 25 houses, each consisting of 6,000 plastic bottles. They are going to be built in all five camps here,” he said.
The project is also important for dealing with the problem of plastic waste. Sahrawi refugees have been living in the camps for over 40 years, and plastic bottles are simply piled up in garbage as there is no capacity to recycle them. One 2014 study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that worldwide, approximately 280 million tons of plastic is produced each year, but only a small percentage is actually recycled. One 2015 studyfound that between approximately 5 million and 13 million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in oceans in 2010 alone. Another conservative estimate found that the ocean now has more than 700 pieces of plastic per person on the planet.
In addition to environmentally friendly housing, Lehbib’s project is also simply making a difference for many people, like Mailaminin Saleh, a mother of a son with special needs who had to live in a tent after her mud brick house was destroyed in recent floods. “We spend months building the other fragile dwelling, unlike this plastic bottles house that took a week to be constructed,” Saleh told ThinkProgress. “It is stronger and more efficient here. I am very happy that I have benefited from this initiative,” she said, adding that “neighbors always admire the house and are keen to have their own.”