In Comalapa, Guatemala, there is no formal waste management or recycling system. Instead, locals dump their trash on roadsides or burn it — some even use it to light the stoves in their homes — which can contaminate the water supply and cause respiratory problems that few can afford.

Nonprofit Long Way Home sees environmental issues like these as major contributors to the cycle of poverty — and sustainability as a key tool for breaking that cycle. Since 2002, the Oregon-based organization has partnered with Comalapa residents to turn trash into eco-friendly construction materials, building sustainable schools where children can learn more about using sustainability to better their communities and acquire skills for employment.

The Seed of an Idea

Long Way Home volunteer using a sledge hammer to pack a tire with earth during construction.

Long Way Home began with the simple idea of building a recreational park for Comalapan children. Founder and Executive Director Matt Paneitz, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the country, worked closely with local residents on the park project. During that time, he noticed the relationship between the community’s environmental issues and the day-to-day challenges people faced. After finishing the park, he decided to partner with residents on a new project: building a sustainable school that would promote environmental stewardship alongside education and employment. Long Way Home was born.

“Sustainability is essential, especially in communities with very little funds to continually buy new products. The more people can grow their own food or build their own house using resources they can find for free (trash)—this can help to overcome poverty.”

Robin Rutchik | Director of Development, Long Way Home

The School That Sustainability Built

Exterior of sustainable school, formed of connected, conical structures decorated with local cultural motifs.

Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot, the school built by the Long Way Home team and its local partners, is now in its fourth year of operation. Every day, 129 students are taught a typical curriculum that also includes lessons in eco-friendly practices, including organic gardening and sustainable construction. Once work is completed on their high school, older students will also be able to receive vocational coursework in carpentry, welding, mechanics and other skills, alongside training in business and technology.

But the students here don’t just learn about sustainability, they see it within the walls of the school itself. To build Técnico Chixot, Long Way Home volunteers and a local construction crew transformed a wide array of trash items into eco-friendly building materials.

Abandoned tires and aluminum cans, packed with earth, form the school’s structural shell. Plastic bottles stuffed with litter serve as sturdy “eco-bricks,” while others act as shingles for the school’s roof. “Skylights” made from glass bottles amplify natural lighting within the building, reducing the need for electricity. Walls are finished with cob, an eco-friendly mixture of dirt, manure and hay, instead of cement.

“Our school is working to prove different methods of use for the trash that is found everywhere. There are very few types of waste that we have not been able to use in construction. Whatever trash doesn’t fit somewhere else, we can pack into the tires that we ram with earth.”

Robin Rutchik | Director of Development, Long Way Home

Two rainwater cisterns provide the school with water. Solar panels and photovoltaic cells currently supply much of the school’s electricity, with the ultimate goal of disconnecting entirely from the local power grid. In short, Long Way Home and its Comalapan partners have constructed a truly self-sufficient school that not only provides much-needed jobs for local teachers and laborers, but prepares the community’s youth for better employment opportunities.

A Sustainable Future

A side view of the school while under construction.

Every child who attends Técnico Chixot or visits the park that originally brought Paneitz back to Guatemala pays a “fee” in the form of eco-bricks — one for each park visit and four to six (in addition to a small monetary fee) per month for school attendance. The idea behind this unconventional tuition system is to change people’s litter habits so that reusing trash becomes part of their everyday routine.

Long Way Home hopes their methods will take root in the broader community outside the classroom, and that seems to be happening. Two of the construction workers who helped build the school used the same sustainable construction techniques to build new homes for their families out of reclaimed waste materials.

So far, Long Way Home has used over 23,750 eco-bricks in construction. Thousands more are waiting to be used. We can’t wait to see what they—and Comalapa—will become.

Learn more about how you can help Long Way Home create self-sufficient communities. For more organizations with an out-of-the-box approach to sustainability, check out our Environmental Innovators series.