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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: