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In Guatemala and Timor-Leste, single-use plastic water bottles are saving lives

Plastic water bottle
Plastic water bottles are producing potable water and optimizing irrigation in villages in Guatemala and Timor-Leste, thanks to Oklahoma City–based NGO World Neighbors.

Amid all the plastic-bashing of single-use water bottles, the benefits that many people enjoy from innovative uses of these bottles have been lost in the shouting. For example, in two villages in Guatemala and Timor-Leste, plastic water bottles have become utilitarian tools, thanks to Oklahoma City–based World Neighbors.

World Neighbors is a 67-year-old NGO working to improve lives through holistic development encompassing sustainable agriculture and rural livelihoods, and supporting community-based natural resources management by creating low-cost, practical solutions to hunger, poverty and disease.

In Timor-Leste, near Indonesia, for example, discarded plastic bottles are used to build an irrigation system. Farmers put small holes in the bottles, fill them with water and place them near seedlings. It’s a quick and easy drip-irrigation method that greatly reduces water usage in climates with very dry conditions.

This is just one of the innovations World Neighbors has introduced as part of a comprehensive effort to increase climate change resilience in Timor-Leste. The NGO is working with local government and USAID to help economic sectors that rely on little water.

Another innovation for single-use plastic bottles is the SODIS (solar disinfection) method for producing clean drinking water. Clear PET bottles are filled with water and set out in the sun for six hours. The UVA rays kill germs such as viruses, bacteria and parasites. The method also works when air and water temperatures are low. Disinfected water is then typically transferred to a large container for household consumption and hand and dish washing. SODIS is recommended by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Red Cross.

Because the plastic water bottles are inexpensive and sturdy, they can be reused as an essential tool in projects like this to prevent illness and increase production and income.

SODIS has changed lives in Tituque, a poor community of 1,400 people in the eastern department of Chiquimula in Guatemala. The village lacks potable water sources. As part of comprehensive health and hygiene training by World Neighbors and its local partner, farm families learned the SODIS method.

Families now have clean drinking water. As a result, gastrointestinal illnesses have fallen dramatically. This is critical in a developing area. These debilitating illnesses prevent people from working, reduce incomes and keep people in poverty. SODIS is a simple and very inexpensive technology that has a large impact on health and productivity. It’s a good example of how improved health and development go hand in hand, and how products that might have become too ubiquitous in developed countries can play a vital role in developing ones.

Too often, the sounds of those crying out against the negative aspects of plastics drown out the stories of the many good uses of plastics. Nothing is all good, and nothing is all bad. Everything has both positive and negative aspects, depending on how people use it.

Cleaning up the huge garbage piles in developing countries such as India and ridding the country of plastic has negative and unintended consequences for some people who make a daily living by collecting the plastic bottles and selling them to recyclers. That’s something I’ve written about previously.

Plastic, especially single-use plastic, has done much to improve the health and well-being of many people around the world. Reuse, which many people are trying to implement, often requires the use of hot water and soap to make the containers and bottles sanitary. Single-use plastic bottles and containers conserve water and energy, and make drinking water and food safe for people.

Let’s remember all the benefits that plastic provides, especially in developing countries where life is lived on the edge. A simple plastic bottle can make one hell of a difference.

Image courtesy Stock.

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