Plastic Upcycling. Plastic Recycling. Plastic Economies. by Samuel Johns
Waste & environmental management in the Himalaya, Nepal A Kathmandu traffic policeman blows his whistle on average 2,800 times per day. That alone totals over half a million whistle blows daily on the streets of the capital. Add that to 20,000 new cars a month, plus 2.5 million motorbikes on the city streets, and countless bicycles, rickshaws, and taxis. The streets are heaving. Yet in the still alpine pastures of Rasuwa District, another crisis is looming. The plastic crisis.
At PSD Nepal (Partnership for Sustainable Development, Nepal), we call this the ’14 billion rule’. It may take only 3 seconds to ‘think and throw’ a water bottle, yet it’ll take 7 Nepali lifetimes to biodegrade – or over 450 years. As an incident of cause, that’s a factor of 14 billion. Go throw a panni bottle, then stand and count ‘1 elephant – 2 elephant – 3 elephant’ 14 billion times and it may just have degraded, if you don’t tire. That’s the phenomenon we’re tackling in Langtang.
Our partners Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) are fantastic, world-renown architects who specialise in the creative re-use and upcycling of local materials. If it’s waste, all the better. Together we’re building a model plastic home – a shelter made of upcycled plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. Why do this work? Recycling around half a tonne of plastic waste per month can seem like a drop in the ocean. After all, every single day of every month, Kathmandu waste amounts to well over 1000 tonnes of solid waste. That number has tripled in the last 5 years. Yet we’re not to despise the day of small things. Or indeed, small beginnings. Langtang National Park – the oldest national park in Nepal, inaugurated in 1976 – and the third most popular park of Nepal after Annapurna and Sagarmartha, hosts around 15,000 trekkers and tourists per year. With that many eyes and ears and attentive walkers passing through a valley devastated by the 2015 mega-earthquake in Nepal, we have an opportunity, a real opportunity. People care. We care.
The Himalayan mountain range is the crowning jewel of Nepal – and the highest point on planet earth. Taking care of this demands responsibility, but also pride and ownership. These mountains are an asset – in the richest sense of the word – with a huge aesthetic and environmental value, not to mention the economic benefits brought by tourism, trekking, and mountaineering. How are we to care for these? Back in 2017 we launched a simple 1 = 1 scheme. 1 PET bottle = 1 Nepali rupee. If you bring us 20 old, empty bottles, we’ll pay you 20npr. If you bring is 5,000, we’ll pay you 5,000npr. At present, together with our partner Himalayan Plastic in Pokhara, we’re recycling over 15,000 bottles per month – funded and fuelled by the economics of recycling, and providing desperately needed employment, vision, and long-term support in the valley of Langtang. The 2015 mega-earthquake in the valley claimed almost 400 lives and has wrought havoc for several years since. Less than 8,000 trekkers visited the valley in 2016, scared of repercussions and aftershocks. For the many villagers depending on the tourist trade, from porters to lodge owners, sherpas, mountain guides, cooks, and pot-washers, the 25th April quake has had lasting reverberations.
Cultivating a circular economy around waste – and plastic in particular – is just one way to tackle these aftershocks, by creating jobs, local employment, and local responsibility for waste and inorganic matter. Thopden Sonam has been hard at work – for over 7 months now – collecting, sorting, cleaning, and storing more than 15,000 plastic bottles a month ready for the recyclers at Pokhara Himalayan Plastic. The large 1000L tank drums we installed are full to the brim with sorted plastic. Thopden has then volunteered one of his sheds to store the excess – overloaded with a mix of large Sprite bottles, sugary Coke bottles, and the plethora of mineral water bottles supplied to trekkers in the valley – Nepal Ice, Bailley, Natural Nepal Water, and Kinley. These have all been salvaged from the rivers (kholas) of Langtang Valley, the rubbish dump sites in Lama Hotel, Bamboo, and Langtang, and the hedges and forest rows beside trekking paths where waste has been thrown. Recycling provides not only an option for cleaning and maintaining the wellbeing of the Himalaya, but also a modest income stream for the local valley. It is estimated over 200,000 plastic water bottles are thrown to a dysfunctional waste system every season. With a history of trekking the valley, that’s well over 100 tonnes of plastic waste in the valley – or equally viewed as a lost economic opportunity of over $70k USD, or 70 lahk Nepali.
The resolve of these mountain people is remarkable. Not just a tenacity and resourcefulness in some of the harshest conditions in all of Nepal, but also a wonderful warmth and welcome in a frosty landscape. Chiyaa is never more than a moment’s notice away. The head didi of every home is always going about her work with a quiet smile and glint in her eye. Smoke puffs from the small chimneys of every home – some with trekkers, hosting homestays, others simply going about their daily life in this remote valley Walking to Langtang is arduous. Long steep sections followed by dangerous passages on landslides in the baking sun, with monkeys squawking overhead and a raging torrent in Langtang khola (river) below.
Our slogan animates us though – Langtang himal, raamro himal – championing this valley for environmental consciousness, clean trails, and a thriving local economy. Convincing the locals is no easy matter. The longer term horizon and vision of our dreams can seem (extremely) faint at times. Yet a vision we do have. A dream we can cling onto. And plenty of support from local elders, PSD Nepal, NAST (Nepal Academy of Science and Technology), and SMA, amongst others. Why throw bottles in the river, if you can recycle them? Even better, why recycle them if you can upcycle?
The Canadian naturalist, writer, and artists – Robert Bateman of Saltspring Island, BC – charges us to take the long view. He writes that we are to ‘Think like a Mountain’. Gazing on his local Mount Maxwell on Saltspring Island in Canada, he writes (2000:117); ‘the story of the creation of this mountain evokes permanence, patience, adaptability and nobility—characteristics worth emulating’. Indeed, he charges us all to ‘think like a mountain’ – with a sense of permanence. The mountain thinks with a long view. With nobility, and also with a sense of longevity and adaptability. The long view demands a degree of patience. Yet permanence pays dividends. The long view never disappoints. If you’d also like to support this plastic work, read more at www.psdnepal.org Here is a short VIDEO of the project First published in the Nepali Times and used with permission