#NepalNow : A recycling centre that makes a difference

woman sorting bottles

Bishnu sorts bottles

Bishnu’s hands work fast. She grabs a plastic bottle from the large bag in front of her and twists off the lid, smoothly tossing it into the small bucket near her feet. Her craft knife flicks, slicing through the label, cutting out the small strip of glue that held it in place, severing the coloured collar left behind on the neck of the bottle and whipping it off. Her final movement: flicking the bottle into the one of the large open-mouthed sacks hanging around her — one for green, one for water, one for clear soda…. It’s barely landed before she’s picked up the next one.

 

 

recycling centre Nepal

Jen with Bishnu in work garb, in her red saree and a detail from the site

I was sitting with Bishnu at the Himalayan Climate Initiative’s Nagar Mitre PET recycling centre in Kathmandu, Nepal. Coca-Cola had flown out of a group of bloggers to Nepal for the #NepalNow trip, to see its work with non-profits and non-governmental organisations along with its #5by20 project (more about which in a subsequent post). We were here to see how this innovative recycling public-private partnership works. Coca-Cola paid for my travel, accommodations and food. 

It has all been amazing but to be honest, this stop was one I was most looking forward to on our trip.

The plastic bottles in our lives

Whenever I toss a plastic bottle in a recycling bin in London, I can’t help but think about its journey, where it came from and, crucially, where it goes. As we all think more about living sustainably, what we do about our plastic bottles is a big issue. Just how big? In the Kathmandu Valley alone, 17 tons of plastic PET bottles (polyethylene terephthalate — the most common type of plastic drinks bottles) are thrown away on the street everyday, and about that much daily in the rest of Nepal.

Every day.

These women, the workers who supply it and this facility play a vital role in the health of the nation, where the waste management system is not up to the job. Independent waste workers gather the bottles from the street and restaurants provide used ones. The workers in this facility sort the bottles and bale them, before sending them on for recycling. HCI is doing things differently from other sorting centres.

 

at the Nagar Mitre recycling, Kathmandu

 

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How HCI makes a difference for workers

As you might imagine, this isn’t traditionally the most respected or well-paid work.

Yet HCI, a youth-driven non-profit committed to social inclusion and climate resilience, is remaking and professionalising the process.

To the gatherers, it pays up to 23 rupees per kilogram, much more than the 12 rupees per kilo they get from other sorting centres. More than that, it has elevated the work they do. One collector, in a video for HCI, describes being called ‘khatey’: garbage. HCI provided them with official branded jackets — uniforms — and now they are seen as workers, not scavengers.

For the sorting jobs, HCI reaches out to vulnerable women, trafficked women, and women trapped economically. It offers flexible shifts, fair pay, free health checks and medications, and more. Even educated women seek out these jobs. Bishnu is pursuing her bachelor of economics degree. Her husband is a lawyer and they have a 7-year-old son. She opts to work 6 hours a day, 6 days a week to help pay for her degree and contribute to the family income. 

 

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The women work expertly with sharp knives to prepare the bottles for recycling

 

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A different bag for every bottle type

And the facility itself, we’re told, is miles ahead of similar places. There is not the expected bad smell — we actually ate lunch in a small courtyard beside the office just steps up from the workspace. All I could detect were the delicious aromas of dal, spinach, and vegetable curry. 

What at first looks chaotic is actually highly organised. Women sit on short stools in pod-like spaces, surrounded by the huge bags they’re filling. Full bags are rolled and carted out for baling. The unsorted bottles sit in a separate space. The women wear heavy-duty gloves, face masks, protective aprons. We heard stories of the terrible conditions elsewhere: overpowering smell, lack of safety for workers, animals, pests, even children running around. 

Here, the feel is professional and organised. We are allowed to walk around freely and talk with the women. I even had a go at using a new prototype tool Coca-Cola engineers created to facilitate the removal of the lid collar. TKNAME looked on politely as I struggled to insert it into the neck, struggled to cut the plastic. She was very polite and didn’t laugh. I was a rampant novice among experts.

How Coca-Cola helps

HCI’s vision is to put the Nepali economy firmly on the path to sustainable development, by finding practical and innovative ideas. Nagar Mitre is one version of that. They also run programmes that educate about sustainability, help build earthquake resistant homes, encourage young people to get involved and more.

Recycling is a global initiative for Coca-Cola. Here, they have not only invested money but also shared expertise and advice. Even their visible involvement encourages other organisations to support and contribute to the initiatives.

“Without Coca-Cola, this project would not have happened,” stresses Prashant Singh, the founder of HCI five years ago and until recently its CEO. He has now stepped aside to make way for Shilshila Acharya, a 29-year-old Nepali woman who studied environmental science in Norway.

A real-world feedback loop

The relationship also creates a conversation between the recyclers and Coca-Cola. To make the work faster during sorting, the company invented a tamper-proof lid with an easier-to-remove collar — the small round piece of plastic that remains around the bottle neck after you twist off the lid. Next up: it is looking at developing a glue for labels that comes off easily so sorters like Bishnu don’t have to spend time cutting out that section of the bottles. 

The result of all these efforts? HCI has made an impact since its inception, with 329.84 tons of greehouse gas reduced through PET bottle recycling and $1.5 million U.S. resources reserved. This is all in addition to the material way it has improved the life of workers. 

 

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The prototype tool for removing lid collars

 

Jenography in Nepal recycling centre

Jen tries out the prototype type, with limited success. Note Bishnu’s furrowed brow

Still challenges ahead

From this recycling plant, the baled bottles have been shipped to India for recycling. But India has recently banned the import of plastics from other countries. Coca-Cola, HCI and its board are looking at their options, including lobbying India, exploring the feasibility of breaking up the bottles (if they are plastic pieces rather than entire bottles, they can be exported) and other options. 

In the meantime, here in this well-run the ladies quickly and efficiently work their way through the piles of bottles, tossing, cutting sorting, making Nepal a cleaner, safer space for everyone.

 

On the #NepalNow trip, Coca-Cola paid for travel, accommodation and expenses. All opinions are my own. 

Check out our visit to an earthquake-affected rural village getting toilet & washing facilities:

#NepalNow : How to rebuild a village post-earthquake

 

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About Jennifer Howze

Jennifer Howze is the Creative Director and co-founder of BritMums. She blogs about family travel at Jenography.net, tweets at @JHowze and Instagrams at @JHowze. Previously, she wrote the Alpha Mummy blog at The Times and as a journalist has contributed to The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Budget Travel, CNN.com, Allure, SELF and Premiere, among others. She won The Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for a health article in Seventeen magazine.

10 Responses to #NepalNow : A recycling centre that makes a difference

  1. Zena's Suitcase 18 September 2016 at 19:42 #

    It’s so positive to read what a difference Coca Cola are making here. It’s so difficult to comprehend what life is like in places like Nepal, but this is a great way to raise awareness and highlight how change is being made. I hope they overcome the export issues really soon

    • Jennifer Howze 27 September 2016 at 09:43 #

      Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, it’s eye-opening to discover all the different factors that go into the recycling process and if one element is out of whack, it affects the entire chain.

  2. Aly 20 September 2016 at 06:42 #

    What a positive and fascinating trip Jen.It;s great to Coca-Cola are looking at steps to make their product easier to recycle with the women in mind.

    • Jennifer Howze 27 September 2016 at 09:53 #

      It makes perfect sense for the company to look at what happens to their product all the way along, including the bottles after the drinks are finished. Of course, this centre recycles all kinds of plastic bottles so there’s an extended positive effect.

  3. Nadine Hill 23 September 2016 at 16:04 #

    It’s interesting to read how Coca-Cola are listening to the recyclers and putting in place things that are needed. With their expertise they can really help out Nepal.

    • Jennifer Howze 27 September 2016 at 09:51 #

      I think we can become jaded when we hear about public/private partnerships that they are simply for burnishing a corporate image. It’s great to get insight into a project like this and see the real difference the involvement that Coca-Cola can make.

  4. elizabeth karras 23 September 2016 at 18:04 #

    Plastics are here to stay, around the globe. Your article was a real education on how to deal productively with their impact. This initiative could be replicated in many countries looking to improve quality of life through recycling programs.

    • Jennifer Howze 27 September 2016 at 09:55 #

      Elizabeth, it’s hard not to feel guilty about the amount of plastic we’re using in our daily lives. It’s good to see that an initiative that recycles and understand the process. (And to know that PET bottles are recyclable!)

  5. Michelle Twin Mum 27 September 2016 at 09:31 #

    Really interesting to read how this works and I pray they manage to get India back on board. Mich x

    • Jennifer Howze 27 September 2016 at 09:56 #

      Michelle, I agree. On the face of it, you might hear about India’s move to stop imports of plastic to their country and think, “Good idea”, but then there is a knock-on effect. I’m keeping my fingers crossed too!

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