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Workmen build the recycled plastic “Eco-Block” school in Taman Sari village, Lombok, Indonesia. The successful pilot project serves as a blueprint for sustainable rebuilding of schools and homes after 2018 earthquakes. Photo: Eszter Papp

School built from recycled plastic in Indonesia offers blueprint for sustainability – and for disaster recovery three years after earthquakes

  • Asia’s first school to be built out of recycled plastic Eco-Blocks serves as a model for a rebuilding programme in Lombok following earthquakes in 2018
  • A factory to make the recycled plastic blocks will open there soon, creating a use for the plastic waste that pollutes Indonesia’s rivers and seas

Asia’s first recycled plastic “Eco-Block” school has been built in a small, earthquake-devastated village in Lombok, Indonesia.

The pilot project’s success has spawned a new wave of Eco-Block schools slated to begin construction in coming months on the Indonesian island.

The earthquake-resistant five-classroom school was built in just five days in June by a local and international team in Taman Sari village, Mataram district, Lombok, an island rocked by a series of major earthquakes in 2018 that killed 563 people and displaced more than 417,000.

“The earthquakes were horrible for us here in Lombok, with damage caused to 1,138 schools, affecting 218,224 students,” says Lombok’s vice-governor, Sitti Rohmi Djalilah.

A man carries a photo of Indonesian President Joko Widodo from a school damaged by an earthquake in Lombok, Indonesia on August 12, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters

Today, almost half those students are studying in temporary shelters, despite efforts by the local government and international aid agencies to rebuild.

In the aftermath of the earthquakes, Classroom of Hope (CoH), an Australian charity that builds schools in Africa and Asia, raised funds to build pop-up schools with local partner Pelita Foundation.

Made from woodchip board and glue, the pop-ups helped more than 4,000 children get back to education.

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“However, the pop-up schools were only ever meant to be a temporary measure. Ever since, there has been an urgent need to get thousands of children back into permanent schools,” says Duncan Ward, chief executive of Classroom of Hope and fundraiser for the Eco-Block School initiative.

Rebuilding has often been limited to traditional bricks and mortar, but the recycled plastic blocks offer a cheaper and more sustainable solution for the huge relief effort needed to rebuild schools across Lombok.

CoH enlisted the help of Finland-based Block Solutions, which was already building low-income housing in Africa with recycled plastic blocks.

Eco-Blocks are made from various forms of recycled plastic mixed with wood fibres. Photo: Eszter Papp

The Eco-Blocks are made from various forms of recycled plastic, such as PET plastic bottles and PP plastic, which are washed and broken down into granules and mixed with wood fibres, before being processed in an injection-moulding machine.

“We can produce a block in only one minute,” says Markus Silfverberg, founder of Block Solutions.

Following months of preparation, CoH, Block Solutions, Pelita foundation and the Lombok regional government delivered 15 tonnes of the recycled Eco-Blocks to Taman Sari village in early June.

Duncan Ward, CEO of Classroom of Hope. Photo: Eszter Papp

The Lombok pilot project was Block Solutions’ first use of its technology to build a school from recycled plastic.

“It’s like adult Lego,” Ward says, “Rather than building a bricks-and-mortar school over three to six months, we can build a five-classroom school in five days from recycled plastic blocks that will last for 100 years.”

Indonesia is the world’s second largest plastic polluter, and it is hoped the Eco-Block solution will help plastic waste management at a grass roots level.

Eco-Blocks are designed to be earthquake resistant. Photo: Eszter Papp

“We want to have a major environmental impact and create a sustainable choice in construction. By using our technology, plastic that currently pollutes oceans, rivers or landfills can be transformed into long-lasting, safe and affordable homes or schools,” Silfverberg says.

The Eco-Blocks’ elasticity and lightweight, modular structure are designed for earthquake resistance.

“Even in the case of a major earthquake, injuries would not be fatal due to the superstructure design and weight of the recycled plastic blocks,” Silfverberg says.

The Eco-Block school under construction. Photo: Eszter Papp

Now plans are in motion to scale the project with the construction of an Eco-Block factory in Lombok and the incorporation of Block Solutions Indonesia.

This means waste plastic can be sourced and recycled, and blocks manufactured locally, with the added opportunity of shipping the blocks throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

“The launch of Block Solutions Indonesia is waiting for final investment decisions, but we are looking at production commencing early next year,” Silfverberg says.

As well as the educational and environmental benefits, there are significant economic advantages, according to Brad Wong, director of Mettalytics Consulting, who wrote the research paper Rebuilding Schools Destroyed in the 2018 Lombok Earthquakes Using Recycled Plastic Eco-Blocks: A Cost-Benefit Analysis.

Students inside a temporary building in front of their damaged school in Lombok. Photo: Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The temporary structures constructed after the earthquake are not sustainable for children to learn over the long run,” he says.

“The evidence shows that for every year in which a child learns in one of these makeshift structures, they learn about half as much as they otherwise would in proper school with facilities. That has implications for their whole life. They learn less now, they will earn less in the future.

“The cost of this as estimated in my report is around US$900 per child per year. When you expand that to 200 to 400 schools, we are talking about US$36 million to US$72 million. That’s about one per cent of Lombok’s domestic product.”

A wrecked religious school in Bangsal, Lombok. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

Wong’s report also makes economic recommendations, including generating a programme to accelerate the rebuilding of the remaining earthquake-affected schools using Eco-Block technology.

“Using Eco-Block solutions makes that a lot more feasible, because the blocks are cheaper and lighter, which makes them easier to transport, and schools can be built much faster,” he says.

“Essentially, the schools are less expensive to build than bricks-and-mortar schools. If the government does invest in the Eco-Blocks School project then, for every rupiah that they spend, they are going to generate 15 extra rupiah in socio-economic and environmental benefits for the Lombok economy.”

West Nusa Tenggara vice-governor Sitti Rohmi Djalilah. Photo: Fraser Morton

The vice-governor’s office has since pledged its commitment to the long-term vision for Eco-Blocks.

“In the future, we hope that Eco-Blocks can not only build classrooms, but also other facilities, like houses and libraries. By establishing an Eco-Block factory in our province we believe it will create solutions to our waste problem, as well as contributing to the local economy. The factory will show society that there is a smart solution to overcome waste problems,” says Vice-Governor Djalilah.

“This project is a perfect example to other regions across the country, since every province faces waste problems,” she adds.

Satriawan Amri, CEO of Pelita Foundation, at the Eco-Block school in Lombok, Indonesia. Photo: Fraser Morton

The Eco-Block school project is teaching future generations about the importance of plastic waste management, says Satriawan Amri, chief executive of Pelita Foundation.

“This Eco-Block school will have many positive effects for the community. First, children have new schools. But now the children have started to collect plastic because they can see the benefits of recycling through the Eco-Block project.

“This is a good thing for the future, as it helps solve many problems related to plastic waste management. We can turn trash into something useful while having an environmental, educational and economic benefit.”

Djalilah says the project will help students understand that waste is a resource when it is properly managed. “The project will also help us to educate our students and their families to start sorting out and managing waste in their neighbourhoods,” she says.

A school damaged by an earthquake in 2018 in Lombok, Indonesia. Photo: Getty Images

The pilot Eco-Block school officially opens in July, providing a permanent school building for 132 students and 12 teachers. Construction of four more Eco-Block schools and two homes will start in the coming months.

“The future of this concept is only limited by people’s creativity,” says Phil Turtle, President, Australia Indonesia Business Council (AIBC), an organisation that promotes bilateral trade.

“There are 17,000 islands in Indonesia with a huge stockpile of raw plastic materials, and so this seems like a huge opportunity for the future. The Lombok project hopefully can be seen as a business that can be scaled and replicated in other parts of Indonesia, because it has an environmental impact and makes economic sense.”

CoH executive Ward is confident the Lombok Eco-Block schools will inspire other provinces to follow.

“My grand vision here is that the factory inspires other regions of Indonesia to build factories and then across Asia and the world,” he says. “This technology should be shared so that we can take plastic waste, create value and have an environmental impact.”