Plastic Nepal — Adventures In Polymers

Plastic waste is a global problem. Field Ready’s Nepal team have been researching how we can utilise these plastics as a humanitarian resource. Read on to find out what we’ve been up to…

Field Ready are currently testing insulation and other properties of recycled plastics in the Nepal Innovation Lab. Photo: Field Ready

Nepal’s small industries are dominated by a unique breed of entrepreneurs. Bablu first came to Nepal in 1997 with a small loan from his extended family to set up a metal workshop in Nepal. Back then plastics were cheap and the most profitable sector to do with plastic was in producing metal dies for plastic injection moulding. Over the years he saw the sector and local market changing and invested in some plastic recycling and injection moulding machinery in the early 2000s. Now his factory has a production capacity of up to 20,000 buckets per day and produces around 50 tons of plastic items per month with an average turnover of $75,000. He doesn’t touch PET plastic — the type used in plastic bottles.

Bablu’s plastic sorting facilities. He processes mostly PP and PE plastics, steering clear of PET. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa

Dwarika-ji started working in plastics about 20 years ago. He started out with a plastic extruder making recycled plastic pellets for the local market. He had little knowledge of the sector and no local contacts. The first ton of recycled plastic pellets he made he couldn’t get rid of. Such was his desperation that he left the pellets with small factories like Bablu’s in the hope that they would use them. His gamble paid off and now he supplies a wide range of plastic raw materials to over a dozen small-medium sized plastics producers in the Kathmandu Valley. Dwarika-ji also doesn’t touch PET plastics.

Dwarika’s industrial production facility for producing plastic pellets in Balaju, Kathmandu. Pictured is his extruder. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa

Recycling plastics in Nepal is mainly an informal venture with many small-scale plastics recyclers like Dwarika buying direct from waste pickers. Kathmandu Metropolitan authorities have not allowed recycling old bottles into new bottles. So, for one decade, Nepal’s plastic water bottles have all been made from virgin plastic pellets imported from the middle east. Dwarika-ji says that it is not worth his time to process PET plastic bottles any more as there is no local demand for the processed PET pellets. Recent crackdowns on exports of baled bottles to India, banned by Indian authorities, have made this model impossible for small businesses. To recycle PET plastic, collectors have to sell to recyclers outside of Kathmandu, of whom there are only a few. This means that there are masses of bottles that go uncollected and end up unused, buried or burned.

Hand sorting plastic bottles before processing and baling for transport to India.

The PET Association of Nepal states that 20,000 tons of PET are used for bottles each year in Nepal. That’s nearly a billion bottles! Estimates suggest that 400 thousand PET water bottles are thrown away each day in Kathmandu alone. It is estimated that 85% of these end up as waste, most going to the Sisdole landfill site in nearby Nuwakot district. One of the quirks of the recycling story in Nepal is that entrepreneurs have been mining the landfill site for years to pick out certain types of waste plastics that they can sell on back in Kathmandu.

Nepal is by no means alone in having plastic waste issues. While working on this issue I came across some mindblowing facts. Buckle up, here we go:

- In 1950, 2 million tons of plastic was produced globally.

- In 2017, 400 million tons was produced, an 8% compound growth rate.

- 40% of this is packaging.

- 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since 1950.

- Only 9% of plastics are recycled globally.

- Every second 20,000 plastics drinks bottles are sold around the world. That’s 7 million by the time you’ve finished reading this article.

- One study estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

Plastic waste is a particular problem in rural areas of Nepal.

Wow! Shocking! But what can be done?

A coalition of Field Ready, Nepal Innovation Lab and Rural Development Initiative are working to address this problem in Nepal, developing solutions that could be relevant globally.

Using waste plastics as a raw material is one answer. In Kathmandu turning waste plastic into new bottles is banned and the sale of baled plastics to India is also forbidden. So what other uses are there for PET in particular?

Field Ready has developed a range of products based on PET bottles, initially for production on a small scale, with the potential to scale from a few hundred kilos in a month up to industrial levels of hundreds of tons per year. These products are aimed at humanitarian applications but are equally valuable in the local market.

So what are we making?

Polyfloss — Poly-what? Using the unique Polyfloss polymer wool making machine (based on a candy floss machine, but using plastics), we are prototyping plastic insulation products for households and rapid response in emergency situations. The machine is small and portable and can be deployed to remote areas to use waste plastic found locally to produce insulation against winter cold and summer heat, especially for tin roofed houses and temporary shelters.

Polymer insulation material is made from plastic waste and used in temporary shelters and houses.

Construction Materials — Using simple techniques and materials available everywhere in Nepal we are combining PET and various aggregates to produce paving bricks, floor tiles, wall and roof tiles for use in post-earthquake reconstruction and as a focus for local environmental and livelihoods projects.

Roof tiles and other sheet materials can be quickly produced by hand in emergency situations.

Field Ready are most interested in making these technologies easily deployable in the event of an emergency, for instance in the initial stages of shelter construction, emergency winterisation, and later IDP livelihoods projects. With an end-product made of plastic waste, that plastic becomes a valuable resource in a zero-waste economy, part of the wider circular economy ideal, where the end use of a product is considered and planned for at the manufacturing and design stage.

Paving bricks can be produced in large volumes using locally available aggregates and plastic waste.

Right now, PET plastic waste is a massive (20,000 ton) problem for Nepal. Field Ready are continuing to develop products for the local market and appropriate technologies to make those products locally using plastic waste. Bringing in entrepreneurs like Bablu and Dwarika will be key to making these applications for PET plastic commercially viable. This approach can, at once, provide jobs for plastic collectors, processors, makers of the products and the sellers of the products. It also benefits the environment, local market and humanitarian response in the event of emergencies.

Field Ready’s research lab at the Nepal Innovation Lab in Kathmandu. Photo: Field Ready

Humanitarian aid supplies made in a way that benefits local people and the environment. Contrast that ideal with current humanitarian practice and the value added becomes clear.

We’re not the first organisation to hit upon the idea of making things from waste, but our collaborative approach and abilities to develop, test and deploy these products and the machines to produce them, makes Field Ready uniquely placed to tackle one aspect of Nepal’s plastics challenge. This project addresses the challenges posed by reconstruction and humanitarian response in a resource constrained environment and demonstrates that vital supplies, made close to where they are needed, can have benefits for aid agencies, entrepreneurs, local communities and the environment.