Thousands more children on two continents will be able to attend school in new buildings made from plastic waste that would otherwise be discarded.
Used plastics already have been used to create new schools in both Colombia in South America and Ivory Coast in Africa.
But there are big plans to expand the effort in both countries and beyond.
Colombian nonprofit group Conceptos Plásticos is behind efforts in both its home country, where three recycled plastic schools already have been built, and Ivory Coast, which already has constructed nine classrooms in three cities and has plans for hundreds more.
Key to the project is Conceptos Plásticos' process that creates bricks from hard-to-recycle plastics.
A typical school uses about 4 metric tons, or 8,800 pounds, of plastic waste during construction, which relies on low water consumption and results in no waste generation.
Dow Inc. is partnering with Conceptos Plásticos in the Aulas Verdas, or Green Classrooms, program in Colombia. Dow also is supporting local cleanup efforts to recover plastic waste that's then used for the schools.
With three schools already completed, Dow and Conceptos Plásticos expect 15 such schools to be constructed by the end of the year in Colombia.
Dow views the effort as both a business opportunity and a way to promote a circular economy with hard-to-recycle plastics, said Carolina Mantilla, Latin America sustainability director for the Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics division.
"The initial opportunity that we saw was to commercialize some of the products we have in our portfolio to improve the compatibilization of recycled materials. Very quickly we realized there was something beyond that," Mantilla said.
Each interlocking brick made by Conceptos Plásticos contains 70-80 percent recovered plastic, so finding a use for much of this hard-to-recycle plastic helps communities deal with their used materials.
While Mantilla said the formula for the remaining material is confidential, she did indicate Dow's Retain-brand compatibilizer is used in the process to facilitate the use of different resins.
"It's not just the technology, but socially to do some more around the circular economy with plastics," she said. "For Dow, it's a priority to be able to enable this kind of model."
There is the hope to expand the Green Classrooms program far beyond Colombia, Mantilla said.
"There is potential in any country in Latin America. When you combine the need to have solutions for the plastic waste issue plus the school deficit we have pretty much across all of Latin America, there is a great opportunity to position this kind of solution in different countries," she said.
The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, and Conceptos Plásticos began construction July 29 on a factory in Ivory Coast to make the plastic bricks for schools there.
The initial construction of nine classrooms in that country used plastic bricks made by the company in Colombia.
Plastic pollution from Abidjan and the surrounding area will go into the manufacture of bricks to create 500 classrooms during the next two years. That's enough space for 25,000 children.
Abidjan is Ivory Coast's largest city and economic center with a population of about 4.7 million. The region generates an estimated 280 tons of used plastic each day. About 5 percent of that is currently recycled, UNICEF said.
"By turning plastic pollution into an opportunity, we want to help lift women out of poverty and leave a better world for children," Isabel Cristina Gamez, co-founder and CEO of Conceptos Plásticos, said in a statement.
Women will be paid for the plastic they collect for the manufacture of the new bricks.
While the plastic schools' effort is starting in Ivory Coast, there are plans to expand the effort into other nearby countries "and potentially beyond," according to UNICEF.
"This project is more than just a waste management and education infrastructure project. It is a functioning metaphor — the growing challenge of plastic waste turned into literal building blocks for a future generation of children," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
Fore called the factory a cutting-edge solution for education challenges. "Its potential is threefold: more classrooms for children ... reduced plastic waste in the environment and additional income avenues for the most vulnerable families," she said in the statement.
A video posted on Conceptos Plásticos' website explains the manufacturing process. The company processes a variety of used plastics, using additives in a process that blends and heats the material.
The combined plastic is then molded into interlocking bricks that can be installed without the need of an adhesive.
Along with schools, the company also has constructed dozens of homes in Colombia using its technology, according to the video.