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From plastic waste to textiles: costs and opportunities for Nepal

Plastic litter fills the street. A man steps outside his home to toss a half a plate of food on the ground. A mix of organic and plastic "waste" burn on the street corner. This was a typical scene in the border town of Birgunj, in southern Nepal.

I visited Birgunj with Dhiraj to pick up a used electric engine necessary to process the hemp fibers. Being on the border, the town is a hub for industrial goods. Mechanic's, welder's, and craft-mans' shops lined the main street. We seemed to drive around in circles looking for one engine powerful enough to power our decorticator. Being turned away again and again, finally we stumbled into a shabby one room garage filled with small engines, machine parts scattered everywhere. The mechanic who ran the place dug out a 100 pound electric engine past all the other "junk" that filled the room. It seemed to make ticking sounds as we rotated the head, not sure if it would actually work we needed to test it. The young mechanic invited us to test it at his relatives workplace.

When we arrived at the worksite, piles of garbage filled the ground. It reminded me of the trash center in Muakaishima, where plastic garbage is sorted and sometimes piled 15 feet in the air. I was surprised to see a facility like this. So far in Nepal I assumed there were not any facilities or municipalities involved in waste management. As a westerner, when you come to a Nepal, the image of the Himalayas' and Mount Everest's natural beauty fills your head; however, reality sets in when you arrive on the streets. "Why is there garbage everywhere, don't they have garbage cans?" There are few issues with this train off thought, and our idealism associated with having a central location to store the garbage is only on the surface.

In the west, like in the United States, the problem is out of sight, out of mind for many of us. We are creating our own Himalaya garbage mountain ranges in the United States through our continued use of land fills, as well as plastic islands in the pacific. According to my brother and film maker, Scott E. Schimmel, this is not just an environmental problem, but very much an economic issue tied to equity and culture as well. His documentary film, "Waste Not Want", looks into waste management issues in Alabama. Landfills are an issue of economics, as land is cheap and widely available. This eye opening documentary shows how much of an opportunity we have in the west to reduce the use of landfills by creating an industry of recycling providing jobs, new products, and reducing environmental costs. Our mantra of reduce, reuse, and recycle is only that a mantra, until it becomes practiced or performed. Returning to Nepal, the mantra here maybe produce, consume, make fire. As garbage is managed on an individual level, often burnt in the streets.

"According to a report from the central Beuara of Statisics (1997), only 17 percent of urban households have their waste collected by waste collectors. Furthermore, in low-income households, indicated by houses having no toilets, only 2 percent of the households have their waste collected. Open waste piles are a common site and the work of municipalities is often limited to sweeping the streets and dumping the waste in the nearest river or vacant land. Modern waste management techniques, such as source separated door-to-door collection systems, material recovery and recycling facilities, sanitary landfilling, and private sector participation have not yet been introduced in most municipalities. "

The business we stumbled upon in Birgunj provided a glimpse into the future of waste management for Nepal and other developing countries. The business was voluntarily collecting plastic from the streets. Women dressed in brightly colored Sari sat on the ground sorting plastic. After it was sorted the plastic went to a shredding machine. One man operated the shredder, a loud powerful machine that would break your arm if not being careful. The shredded plastic was then moved from there to another shredding machine, making small plastic granules, half the size of a penny. This material was then melted, slowly oozing out of a tube like a childhood play-doh toy. The main difference being play-doh said non-toxic on the package. This dingy half open factory, smelled strongly of slowly burning plastic, yet the young men, maybe 16 wore tank tops, no goggles or masks, refilled the machine with chips. The "play-doh" was moved to a filament, creating a pressed grey sheet. The sheet was moved upward in the factor and rolled out by women inside the factory. "What a process??" I thought. Of course the health hazards were one major concern, but the owner was doing something about the garbage, though I don't think he was trying to "save the world" through recycling it was my first glimpse into a recycling factory, the process most likely mimicking what exists in state of the art facilities. The owner, an Indian man who moved across the border to start this factory hopes to open many more, seeing a great opportunity in the plastic waste material of Nepal. This "recycled" plastic sheet, will actually be used as a water barrier for roofs, fitting to the textile, food, and shelter theme.

Nepal is slowly transitioning out of the more traditional agrarian society, into a "modern" society, so Nepal has not developed the infrastructure to consume "non-organic" materials like plastic, concrete, and metal at such high rates. Only 20-30 years ago foods were wrapped in banana leaves and could be tossed on the ground, returning nutrients to the soil, so when food wrappers and potato chip bags are treated in the same way, the plastic waste fills the storm drains and rural hillsides. Considering Nepal does not have the economic capacity to open large scale facilities at the state and city level, entrepreneurs starting these small facilities could help Nepal reduce the amount of waste found on the streets. Through Public-Private partnerships these small facilities could start up all throughout the country. The opportunities are here, but if leadership or progress is hindered the health and environmental costs could be irreversible.

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