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.
When I stepped out of the U.S. Forest Service SUV after nearly a two-hour scenic autumn drive from Taos, New Mexico to the Carson National Forest, we were standing in an expansive valley so big that huge cows below us looked like mere dots in the distance. We had finally arrived at Valle Vidal, a massive grassy meadow with vistas as far as the eye could see and elevations reaching close to 13,000 feet in Carson National Forest. Even though Valle Vidal is overwhelmingly beautiful to take in its environmental impact is being increasingly hampered by major stream and groundwater degradation that needs immediate remedying in order to protect fish and wildlife as well as to store more ground water for communities downstream.
I was in New Mexico visiting the Carson National Forest with Coca-Cola North America’s sustainability team last week to learn about their water restoration efforts in northern New Mexico as well as the company’s overarching nationwide partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and National Forest Foundation that replenished 1 billion liters of water to nature and communities reaching 60 million people in the United States. Coca-Cola also recently announced that it has successfully reached one of its principle global sustainability milestones ahead of schedule to effectively balance its water usage in its beverages and production. Coca-Cola has reached its goal five years ahead by replenishing 191.9 billion liters of water across the globe in 71 countries. In the United States, Coca-Cola North America has pledged to double the 1 billion liters of water that it has already replenished by 2018.
I was in Nepal with Coca-Cola for a very short period of time earlier this month, but we did and saw a lot in the days we were there including:
(Day 1) How the local Coca-Cola bottling company is working with a Nepalese NGO that is rebuilding a community from scratch after the earthquake
(Day 2) How Coca-Cola is empowering businesswomen in their supply chain
On Day 3 we visited a PET (plastic) bottle recycling center run by the Himalayan Climate Initiative where we sat down with women waste workers who sort the bottles to be recycled. It was heartening to learn about the innovative ways HCI is providing benefits and dignity to the women waste workers who will remain in Nepal’s lowest caste for the rest of their lives.
Nepal, while being a hotbed for adventure seekers, trekkers, tourists, and mountaineers, faces many economic struggles that heavily plague low-and-middle income countries. The vast majority of Nepal’s economy is based on remittances with 25 percent of its working population living outside of the country. Additionally, with an average population age of 23, Nepal has a dismal 50 percent unemployment rate. These systemic economic struggles, of course, disproportionately affect women and subsequently their children and families. Couple that with a stringent caste system and some Nepali women remain inherently stuck on the lowest rung of the class ladder and are subject to some of the basest forms of work available to them.
The Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI), a youth-driven environmental NGO based in Kathmandu, is working with some of these women whose only other economically viable life option may be selling themselves sexually to the nearest customer, working in the illegal scrap waste trade, or going abroad to find work and then enduring whatever fate awaits them. HCI employs socially discriminated women waste workers at its PET Bottle Recollection Social Enterprise (Nagar Mitra) allowing them to create a livelihood beyond what might traditionally befall them.