Turning Trash Into Classrooms in Nicaragua

Hammocks abound at peaceful Hacienda Mérida. Image by ChangeStream Media.

Today’s Culture with Travel post is by Denise Miller, ChangeStream Media Co-founder and Visit.org Visual Ambassador

Visitors to Nicaraguan Lakeside Paradise Help Turn Trash Into Classrooms

“Here in this hotel, we focus on two things: education and garbage.”

These aren’t typical focus areas for hotels, but Alvaro Molina isn’t your typical hotel owner.

Born in Nicaragua, Alvaro and his family sought political asylum in the United States following the Nicaraguan Revolution. When Alvaro returned to his home country decades later, he was troubled by problems he saw: poverty, pollution, and lack of educational opportunity. In 2002, he opened Hacienda Mérida hotel on the idyllic island of Ometepe and set out to tackle these issues.

Post author Denise Miller, Hacienda Mérida owner Alvaro Molina, and ChangeStream Media volunteer Ellie Kozlowski. Image courtesy ChangeStream Media.

When my fellow volunteer Ellie Kozlowski and I spent a few days at Hacienda Mérida in June, our assignment was to document our experience as visitors. Hacienda Mérida is a partner of Visit.org, an online platform for social impact travel experiences. Travelers can use the website to book tours and adventures led by organizations that make a positive impact on their communities worldwide. Hacienda Mérida offers a guided hike up nearby Maderas Volcano, and thanks to my very cool title of “Visual Ambassador” for Visit.org, I was invited to climb the volcano and explore Hacienda Mérida’s community programs.

Nicaragua Maderas Volcano
From Maderas Volcano, hikers can get a view of Ometepe’s other giant, Concepción Volcano. Image by ChangeStream Media.

The trek was challenging and beautiful. Our friendly guide shared interesting information about local geology, plants, animals, and human history. We listened to the banter of howler monkeys, saw ancient petroglyphs, and learned how banana and coffee plants grow.

Nicaragua hacienda merida
Hacienda Mérida sits on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. Image courtesy ChangeStream Media.

Even more fascinating to me, though, were my conversations with Alvaro.

From the moment we arrived at Hacienda Mérida, Alvaro was eager to show us around. He guided us through the kitchen, sharing details about the efficient wood-burning stoves and insisting we try locally sourced coconut ice cream smoothies. (We didn’t object, and they were delicious — as were all our meals at the hotel.) He told us about the property’s eco-friendly septic system and the simple but ingenious washbasin faucets that prevent water waste.

At the heart of Hacienda Mérida’s sustainability efforts, however, are the Ometepe Bilingual School and the Ecobricks that built it.

Ecobricks are essentially plastic water bottles filled with plastic waste, such as candy wrappers and shopping bags. Hacienda Mérida pays locals $.50 for each brick they make. One of the most memorable moments from my time in Ometepe came when I met 84-year-old Don Francisco, who turns in hundreds of bottles each year. For him and other villagers, making Ecobricks generates income to buy food and other necessities. When I thanked Don Francisco for helping to keep the island beautiful, his giant smile made it clear that he was proud of his work.

Alvaro Molina holds an Ecobrick, a plastic bottle filled with plastic waste. Image by ChangeStream Media.

In addition to creating economic opportunity, the Ecobricks program gets plastic waste off the streets — a major benefit on an island with no recycling facilities. Along with an uptick in tourism has come an increase in trash, and there’s no easy or inexpensive way to get it off Ometepe. Plastic garbage often hangs around as litter, makes its way to a big dump, or is burned, polluting the air and creating health hazards.

Workers at Hacienda Merida use a mold to build a table out of Ecobricks. Image by ChangeStream Media.

Alvaro uses the trash to build tables, chairs and walls at the on-site primary school that is funded by hotel profits and donor support. He started the bilingual school because he wants to make sure the next generation of Ometepe residents, including his two small children, have the ability to speak English and participate fully in the local tourism economy.

I loved visiting Ometepe Bilingual School, with its colorful plastic walls, and imagining how inspiring it must be for the children who study there. All the students, and their parents, make Ecobricks and learn about sustainability.

Ometepe Bilingual School is built using Ecobricks. Image by ChangeStream Media.

Alvaro has brought Ecobricks to other island schools, as well. When school groups gather several hundred Ecobricks, Hacienda Mérida makes them a table utilizing a mixture of the plastic bottles and cement.

Alvaro got the funding for the tables program by appealing to Fuente Pura, Nicaragua’s leading bottled water company. Alvaro is constantly advocating for companies that produce plastic waste to contribute to cleaning up the mess; he showed me countless email conversations between him and businesses that sell refreshments and household products in disposable plastic containers. He hopes that more companies will hold themselves accountable for generating garbage, and become part of the solution as Fuente Pura has.

As he advocates for large-scale change, and turns trash into classrooms on the small island of Ometepe, Alvaro’s focus on education and garbage is making a difference. I was grateful for the opportunity to discover the natural beauty of Ometepe, and to find inspiration in Alvaro’s passion for uplifting his community. You can be part of the story, too; book your Hacienda Mérida experience on Visit.org, and learn about opportunities to volunteer with Ometepe Bilingual School on the Omprakash website.

Denise Miller is the co-founder of ChangeStream Media, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that uses digital storytelling to spread important ideas and support innovative grassroots organizations worldwide. She partnered with Visit.org to share the story of Hacienda Mérida and promote visits to this lakeside paradise.

2 thoughts on “Turning Trash Into Classrooms in Nicaragua

  1. This is amazing! With all the trash out there, it’s great to know that there are good things being done with it. And really, can you do much better than build a classroom with it? Wow. Sounds like a wonderful experience. Thank you for sharing this.

Let us know what you think