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Profile of Susanne Heisse

Aired September 30, 2012 - 14:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I live in this village for 15 years. I came forward with trash.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Susannah was also regarded as a little bit crazy. First of all, she looks like this wild person.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I said, you are crazy, you are totally crazy. You want to build with this? And then on October 5, we had first big hurricane here and 25 houses were ripped right out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then there was suddenly this huge need for rebuilding, and there were those empty bottles filled with those little papers that the children had been stuffing and stuffing and stuffing.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Plastic bottles stuffed with trash. It's unlikely building material.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is trash and it is a container for trash.


GUPTA: But when a hurricane decimated a tiny lake community in Guatemala, victims desperate to rebuild immediately saw its value.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We said, I can't believe it, do you need help?


GUPTA: That was in 2005. Today, you can find the so-called "eco- brick" in almost every continent.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The projects are growing in El Salvador, Guyana. I've heard of a similar type building in Thailand.

(END VIDEO CLIP) GUPTA: It's all because of Susanne Heisse, the creative force behind this deceptively simple innovation, a former political prisoner turned fashion designer.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If she wasn't doing trash, she would (inaudible).


GUPTA: She's unconventional by almost any standard. But today her unorthodox use of trash is improving the lives of thousands around the globe. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is THE NEXT LIST.


SUSANNE HEISSE, FOUNDER, PURA VIDA: This is an ecobrick. This is a container, and this is where you stuff all the wrappers, all the plastic bags, everything what is synthetic and inorganic trash. You put the lid on and then you have an ecobrick ready for construction.

I'm Susanne Heisse. I'm the founder of the Pura Vida. This is in Guatemala and Central America, and this is called the most beautiful lake on earth.

JOYCE MAYNARD, AUTHOR, "LABOR DAY": Picture a vast, blue body of water surrounded by three towering volcanoes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are three different Mayan groups around the lake. They all speak different languages. A lot of the main cultural elements are still maintained. Every town around the lake has its own unique feel.

HEISSE: In the '60s, this new material plastic came. That was totally new for them. Plastic is not a bad material, it helped them a lot, but nobody told them, like, look, this is not a leaf. This is not going to decompose. This is going to stay here for 20, 30, 50, 100, 500 years.

CHRIS BARRY, FORMER PEACE CORP VOLUNTEER: The trash problem is affecting these communities in several ways. Tourism is a big issue. Bacteria blows up in the lake. Tourists are no longer allowed to swim and that region is very much dependent on tourism.

And then you talk about drainage problems, these bags and wrappers and bottles get caught up in the drainage system. The water is not allowed to drain the way it's supposed to.

HEISSE: So there are two things happening. One is that the rain takes all the trash and pushes all the trash down to the lake, which is only like little steps below us. The hardest thing is that all the bad leakage, they all go down to the ground and they are contaminating in the soil above and also the water which is beneath.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The specific idea is to have everybody recycling and have a consciousness for clean.

HEISSE: This is the famous Pura Vida wall built out of 1,000 ecobricks. These children have been constructed by kindergarten children.

MAYNARD: It is trash and a container for trash. When it is filled with trash, it has efficient integrity to be used as a building block.

BARRY: You use those as basic building materials and you're also able to clean up the community and teach about environmental education in accordance of maintaining a clean environment around you, trash management, all that kind of stuff.

HEISSE: This is a chicken wire, and it's stuffed with deposits, and we're leaving that spot out so people can see directly, this is ecobricks. This is made out of plastic trash.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What Susanne has shown us today is does make me feel like why didn't I think of that ages ago?



GUPTA: The simplicity of Susanne's ecobrick is also part of its genius, cheap, easy to make, environmentally friendly. It's a common sense solution for almost any community. With the help of the Peace Corps as well as charities like "Hug It Forward," the word is spreading.


CYNTHIA HUNT, HEALTH, ENVIRONMENTAL LITERACY IN THE HIMALAYAS: What Susanne has shown us today, it does make me feel like why didn't I think of that ages ago?

GERSON GUITZ, "HUG IT FORWARD": We are building a two-classroom school. This school serves about 200 kids.

BARRY: The ultimate goal with the bottle school is not to eliminate trash just by building schools. That would be impossible. There's too much trash. The ultimate goal is raising awareness about the environment, about the importance of managing trash.

The original idea was using just a basic post and beam structure with wood. One difference that "Hug It Forward" has adopted is using founded cement with rebar.

HEENAL RAJANI, "HUG IT FORWARD": "Hug It Forward" is a 501-C registered non-profit based in the United States, and what we do is we empower communities to build bottle schools.

HUNT: We've been invited here by "Hug It Forward" because we have a real issue with plastic bottles in the Himalayas and it's a new pollution problem for us, extremely damaging problem because the cows are eating the plastic and dying from it, which is losing our only source of quality protein for the children.

GUITZ: As you can see, it takes about 6,000 bottles to finish a whole construction, and this is the last square we're making right now and all the bottles have to be the same height. It's a little different than Pura Vida.

We're using a metal frame as well as wood. Our metal beams are actually columns, and then when you put the metal frame, you just bend this over here so you make this really tight.

HEISSE: They are really strong?

GUITZ: This is a very safe construction. We actually comply with different goals internationally, and we have the support of different engineers and architects in Guatemala.

HUNT: We've only been here four days so far, but we've already built a couple of the bottle walls that you see behind us. One of the great things, the partner that's here with me is a locally trained builder from the documented Himalayas, and we talk about what will work in the Himalayas on how we can change things.

For instance, in Guatemala, the climate is totally differently. We're high altitude desert, above 35 meters so we have very cold winters and we're working with the technology people from "Hug It Forward" to make sure that we can use this as insulation and let our kids stay warm in our schools.

HEISSE: That's why it's very important taking the tradition you have and combine that with new ideas.

I was totally impressed to visit people from India. Because they have a completely different condition, so it's important to develop the constructing system in every place differently.

BARRY: People are really catching on to the idea. Projects are growing in El Salvador, Guyana. I've heard of a similar type building in Thailand.

HEISSE: It makes me so glad that the idea of the (inaudible) is spreading from -- towards all Guatemala, towards the whole world that everybody pitch in with new ideas to make it better, to transform it, to adapt to different situations, that we are the part of the solution and not the part of the problem anymore.

MAYNARD: Susanne was in prison in East Germany, and I believe Susanne was tortured.




MAYNARD: Susanne grew up in a religious household. And I think at the core of Susanne's being is an enduring belief that what matters in life is to give back.

BARRY: She describes herself as an artist and she's very much of that personality. But she had a calling from God to manage trash issues and she's followed it with a passion.

HEISSE: It all started actually that as a child, we were playing cowboys and Indians, and I always wanted to be an Indian and I wanted to have the Indian genes, but I didn't even know Central America exists because I was born in East Germany behind the big wall.

I was born the day the burning wall arose and the wall was in between my destiny. It was a bit more traumatic to leave East Germany. I was trying to escape. I was very lucky because I was not shot on the wall like so many. I was just taken into jail.

MAYNARD: Susanne was in prison in East Germany, and I believe Susanne was tortured.

HEISSE: And so I was one year in jail. And after one year, the government of Germany, they traded prisoners, political prisoners, and so I got traded out and I came to West Germany.

After one year of jail, if you're only 19 years old, that makes you a not very confident child. You're shaky. Then you come to a whole new world and I experienced this is a bit rougher world also, you know.

So what I did was I hitchhiked to Italy where I always wanted to be, in Italy, and I was ending up on a little island called volcano, and I found a cave, and I was really like my other hero Robinson Crusoe living in a cage.

I wanted to make sure I could live by myself. I didn't live with society, I lived with nature. After one year I was ready to go back to the society. I was strong enough but my self-esteem with all my beliefs and I went right into this.

He did that at home, climbing up the ladder, and I would pick. But then when I came into the fashion business, I thought, this is not what I really want, and I think destiny said, Susanne, this is not where we really want you. That was the first time I put my feet into another continent, which is this continent.

When I came to Lake Mazatlan, I thought, what did I do to deserve living here? That was like so important for me, but then came the hurricane and then trash. All of a sudden I was realizing the beauty of this land and the beauty of the lake is in danger.

We need a good solution, and who am I, little Susanne, to remove mountains of trash. Then I saw an old man on his porch sitting and stuffing plastic trash into a bottle.

And I thought, this is the solution and then I was only a step away of, what are we going to do with all these bottles? Sooner or later we're going to have thousands. And it was very clear to take that to construct.




MAYNARD: This is an example of where it's cleaner now than it was 15 years ago, and the reason is Susanne.

HEISSE: Before I was always against the streams, and now I'm confused because I'm not against any stream. I'm with the whole stream, you know. That is also a good sign.

MAYNARD: I think it all came together for her when she recognized that nothing else could survive, not the ancient traditions, not the next generation of children, their ability to get educated if they didn't have food in their bellies, and a town that was clean enough that people would come who would give the jobs.

HEISSE: Well, their physical environment and mental health, that's all related.

MAYNARD: Susanne educated people in the making of the bricks, but really it's a much bigger education, because she's also talking about nutrition, about what are we doing with spending our money on little packets of chips? What are you feeding your children?

HEISSE: I'm very, very glad, like, from the bottom of my heart, actually, that we're working together with the government to design a new manual talking about the issues of trash management, of nutrition, of hygiene and that this is going to be a foundational manual to teach in 450 schools.

BARRY: Susanne's work has been very contagious. She's been able to influence a lot of people to do a lot of different things in environmental education, environmental construction and the protection of these indigenous communities.

SIPAC: We've seen the kind of change in a lot of ways of people being more conscious, about what they do with their trash, about how to deposit it and where it goes afterwards.

MAYNARD: I would never presume to say what Susanne's ultimate goal would be. Susanne is the only one who can say that one. But I think Susanne is going to, with her last breath, be working to preserve that lake and that culture.

HEISSE: People here are laughing. My ears are laughing. They have a smile, they're gentle, you know. If you live by yourself, you need that smile. You need the embracing. This makes me feel like part of a family.

My life has been through a lot of hard situations, but I'm very glad that I'm now on this mission and that I'm 100 percent sure that this is my path and my destiny. The future of Pura Vida has gone from my hands to their hands to the next hand to the next hand. It's on its way. Nobody can control it and I think nobody can stop it. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: Faced with the mountains of trash choking her lake, Susanne Heisse didn't just clean it up. She put that trash to use and in giving the world the ecobrick, she's empowered people all over the globe to build cleaner, healthier lives. That's what earns her a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, please go to and join me on live stream at

Thanks so much for joining us. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. We'll see you back here next Sunday.