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.
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.
The world of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is vast and growing if you live in Nepal. Some experts estimate there is a whopping 50,000 registered NGOs (PDF) in the country, a steep increase since an NGO registration change in 1992. With that change, groups of individuals joined together in droves to create organizations to fight the languishing poverty in Nepal, a country that has been classified by the United Nations as one of the world’s least developed countries since 1971. Experts also attribute the increase of Nepalese NGOs to the country’s small private enterprise sector. Most Nepalis believe the only way they can make money is through civil society where tens of millions of dollars flow through Nepal’s civil sector every year.
While many organizations follow the safe blueprint of how NGOs should operate, there are some that are devising innovative ways in which to help communities at their most basic level, especially after the earthquakes that rocked the landlocked country caused nearly 9,000 fatalities nationwide last year. The earthquakes shocked the country and exposed immense disaster relief vulnerabilities of the government as well as the throngs of NGOs that were not prepared to handle a major natural disaster.