PET bottles, one of the most widely used materials in the world, are used to package foods and drinks from soda and juices to salad dressings and cooking oils. It is also completely recyclable. In the United States alone, 1.5 billion pounds of PET bottles are recycled annually.
Throughout my travels to low and middle-income countries I see PET bottles thrown haphazardly in fields and streams clogging waterways and dirtying sidewalks and walking paths. In countries such as Nepal (where I visited last year with Coca-Cola), there are concerted educational efforts by environmentally focused NGOs to change behaviors around discarding PET bottles. There are recycling centers in Nepal, but not enough to completely clean its streets and countryside. It seems to be a sisyphean battle to combat PET bottle waste, but there are some who are using the bottles in innovative ways.
After Nepal’s destructive earthquake in 2015, Nepalis needed to rapidly rebuild homes. One way was by using PET bottles to build eco-housing. By filling the PET bottles with mud, the bottles are not as brittle as bricks, but are just as strong and can be used to bind walls (with chicken wire) just as effectively. Additionally, the PET bottles are shock absorbers, an imperative design feature in an area that experiences routine earthquakes. More importantly, however, PET bottle housing is extremely low-cost and it takes more PET bottles off the streets.
I saw an office made by PET bottles in Kathmandu at the Himalayan Climate Initiative, an NGO that employs women to ready PET bottles to be recycled. You’ll notice in the images below that the bottles are filled with mud and are arranged like bricks in concrete walls. This is an innovative way to use PET bottles that would otherwise be strewn across Nepal and additionally provides a way for women to earn a living through housing construction.
In Dulag, Philippines, I visited a women’s farming co-op with World Vision. The women farmers rely on low-cost PET bottles to grow their seedlings that eventually turn into cash crops that benefit both their families and communities.
Working together and using low-cost materials allows these women to earn money as well as ensuring their families are food secure.
While the global recycling industry will top $56 billion dollars by 2024 according to Recycling International led by China and India, there are still opportunities to use PET bottles in ways that provide low and middle-income countries with innovative uses for the materials that would either by recycled, thrown along streets or streams, or worse, wind up in the ocean or sent to landfills where they will not degrade for centuries. Most importantly, it provides women with opportunities to turn a low-cost plastic into bettering their lives.