By Nicholas Corea
Robert Bezeau woke up on the morning of August 5th 2015 after dreaming of a village full of houses made of plastic bottles. Fast forward ten months later and his dream is quickly becoming a reality.
With a background in building pre-fabricated homes in Quebec, Bezeau began building with plastic bottles after collecting millions of them along with other recyclables in hopes of establishing an official recycling program in Bocas. He made a proposal in December of 2012 to the local government, but it never exactly came to fruition. Instead of giving up, Robert decided to continue collecting plastic, aluminum and glass with his truck at his own expense, while accepting donations from residents and tourists. Unfortunately, the donation funded program wasn’t feasible and there was nothing economically soluble to do with the collected recyclables. So instead of bankrupting himself on this unusually benevolent hobby, Robert was forced to close his recycling program’s doors in March of 2014. Now there was the question of what to do with the estimated 1.5 million bottles he has on site…
“I wanted to make a floating island,” remembers Robert. For a while, he was inspired by Richart Sowa, who spent 7 years building a floating island out of 150,000 plastic bottles off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. I remember interviewing Robert in 2014 when he was captivated by this idea. He has since elected not to do it because he fears he will be blamed for every plastic bottle floating around the Caribbean seas of Bocas. Instead he wants to inspire the rest of Panama and the world as a whole to copy his idea and immortalize one-use plastic bottles into permanent dwellings.
So far, he has been able to use those bottles for the gorgeous gate (30,000 bottles) you can see pictured, one small apartment and a 900 square foot home. He also just completed the manufacturing of a two floor castle made of 15,000 plastic bottles that was built on his farm but eventually will be transferred to another location on the island. According to the bottle builder himself, it is essentially the same cost as building with conventional materials, but there are definitely a few unique advantages. Obviously it is helpful to the environment because it is a way to reuse an otherwise stubborn piece of trash that will take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade. Other advantages? The air in the bottles acts as a natural insulator which makes it more difficult for the heat to enter the walls, thus keeping the plastic bottle homes cool. The structures are also quite earthquake resistant compared to other building materials due to their light and flexible nature. “Once the cement plaster is done, you can’t see with your eyes the difference from a concrete block house, but you can surely feel it with your heart,” says Robert.
Okay, so let’s talk some numbers. In a study conducted by the ATP (Panamanian Tourism Authority), it is believed that Bocas receives about 100,000 visitors a year that spend an average of 5 days and consume an average of 4-5 drinks, which gives us a rough estimate of 2.5 million plastic bottles a year. After consumed, unless they are donated to Robert, they really serve no purpose on the island. Apparently, you can sell a 10 pound compacted block (1 cubic foot minimum) of cleaned and separated-by-color plastic in Panama City for $0.15/pound. Good luck with that! Other than that, they are burned on the island (which is toxic) and in the worst cases float into the sea to be eaten by fish and birds, which does not do much to nourish them and a lot of times can be fatal.
Now, the one floor home Robert has finished gives a new purpose to exactly 10,162 plastic bottles. He claims that each floor of a similar sized home will use about 10,000 bottles. His dream is to create green residential community, which has been named “The Plastic Village”. Currently he has 38 lots ready. It is a 3 phase project which by the end will render 120 homes made of recycled plastic bottles and concrete. “It’s a perfect place for people who wish to experience living in what they drink,” says Robert.
Here is a quote from their website (www.plasticbottlevillage.com) that best explains the project: “Over the three phases of development, The Village will consist of around 120 homes/lots, as well as a small boutique, eco-lodge, that will mesh with the community’s fruit, vegetable, and herb garden. The Village will utilize natural settings to create green zones, that will house a yoga-exercise pavilion, hiking trails and small manicured mini-parks for barbeques, and out door gatherings.”
During the interview we noticed 2 mini-van bus taxis arrive with what Robert tells me was the biggest group of visitors he has ever received at the time. Groups of 4 to 10 people come all the time, but this was a group of 34 people from the city of Colon. They were amazed by the various structures as Robert gave them a passionate explanation of the project. I spoke with Stewart of the Colon group who happens to be a welder, plumber, mason and builder himself and he had this to say:
“It’s impressive. Marvelous. I hope the government sees this and they support it economically and can spread it through the whole country because of the ecological harm that this plastic is causing in the mountains, in the jungle, in the ocean, in the lakes, in the rivers. All because there is nothing else to do with these bottles after using them. These plastic bottles are made for nothing else other than, you know, after getting drinking the liquid or the contents of that bottle, they have no other use. And they wind up wherever. But with these houses, we now have another use for them.”
The Plastic Village is in Bocas del Toro on the main island (Isla Colon), 2 km after the “Y”, where the road splits, heading left to Boca del Drago which Robert likes to call “The Plastic Road” because of all the signs before the Village. It is located on the same property as the town’s electric plant. You can send bags in a taxi and taxi tend to charge $6 from town ($3 each way). Plastic bottles are accepted, but only of the drinkable variety (water, juice, soda, etc.) Bottles of bleach or cleaning agents are not accepted. Please no crushed bottles, trash, plastic bags, cans or glass. The Plastic Village is open to the public and Robert is eager to give tours in English, Spanish or French when he is available. I highly recommend a personal tour from Robert as he is very, very passionate about his vision. He can talk at lengths about the plastic problem and the negative implications for life on our only planet.
The most important outcome of this project to Robert is to see that he has inspired more and more Plastic Villages across the world and that there will be less and less plastic consumed, buried and burned. I like the motto that you can find on their website: www.plasticbottlevillage.com and it goes as follows: “We are changing the world, without changing the Earth, one home at a time.”