Plastic bottles could bring renewable lighting to all

Cramped, windowless dwellings in impoverished parts of the world are being given a new lease of life thanks to a remarkably simple invention

How many bottles of water does it take to replace a light bulb? It’s not a joke, there’s a genuine answer: one.

Using humble water bottles to light homes is a real technology that is improving the lives of poor people around the world. A project called Liter of Light is helping to bring natural daylight to people living in makeshift, windowless housing by installing a litre bottle of water into a hole in the roof of their homes.

The water bottle refracts sunlight and spreads it around the room, providing lighting up to the same level as that emitted by a 55 watt bulb. It is free to run and cheap to install, providing a renewable, sustainable and carbon-free alternative to traditional lighting.

The story of Liter of Light began in the Philippines. Telecommunications manager Illac Diaz was shocked by the living conditions he saw in poor areas hit by severe storms. He was interested in finding ways to provide cheap and durable replacement buildings in these storm-damaged areas, and left his job to study alternative architecture and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the US.

Returning to the Philippines, Illac set up MyShelter Foundation to provide architectural and technological solutions to storm damage in poor areas. Liter of Light began as a MyShelter project, with the water bottle technology provided by some of Illac’s colleagues at MIT. Soon the project had brought light to 28,000 homes in Manila alone.

MyShelter spread the message worldwide by producing a video illustrating the simplicity of the technology. The video quickly went viral with four million views in just three months, and within one year 350,000 solar bottles had been installed around the world.

Talking about the explosion of interest in the idea, Illac says: “People are talked to about green technology but they don’t feel that they can get involved, so to have something where people could just buy a pair of metal snippers and some glue and really change people’s lives, that was what people rallied behind.”

Liter of Light organisations soon sprang up in countries as far away as Switzerland and Colombia, and the idea has since made its way to the UK.

Alejandro Clavijo, a member of Liter of Light Colombia, moved to England in 2012 to set up a branch of the organisation in Britain. He is currently living in Bournemouth, where he gives frequent talks on the revolutionary solar bottle technology. One of the first projects he has in mind for the UK organisation is to bring light to a tiny island off the north coast of Colombia.

Santa Cruz Del Islote is officially the world’s most crowded island, with around 1,200 inhabitants living on just 0.12 sq km of land. The island, which is a two-hour boat ride from the popular tourist destination of Cartagena, is so crowded that people have to walk through each other’s kitchens to get around. Residents have to go to neighbouring islands to bury their dead or even kick a ball around. Naturally, such cramped conditions means there is a lack of lighting even in the daytime, especially because the island’s electricity generators only work at night.

According to Alejandro: “Funding from the UK could easily help us to install lighting into all the homes of Santa Cruz del Islote as well as forming strong links between the UK and Colombian groups.”

Liter of Light is truly beginning to work as a global network, aiming to bring its technology to one million homes internationally by 2015, and on Earth Day (22 April) 2013 it plans to install 10,000 solar bottles in 100 locations in the Philippines and ten other countries.

The organisation also has plans to create renewable, affordable lighting technology for the night time, working on a prototype that sees small solar panels fitted to the caps of the solar bottles. These panels will charge LED lights housed inside the bottles, providing light for all kinds of dwellings regardless of the time of day, and enabling inhabitants to live fuller lives away from darkness.