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.
During my recent trip to Nepal I said time and time again how surprised I was about the country. It was honestly nothing like I had expected. I thought (since it shares a border with India) that it would be a carbon copy of it southern neighbor. That, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. Nepal is very different from India. The food is completely different and definitely not as spicy. That’s not to say you can’t get great Indian food in Nepal. It’s just to say their cuisine is very, very different.
Even though Kathmandu is a crowded city, it never felt overwhelming like Indian big cities where you can drown in people and your senses go into hyper overdrive. I glean that Nepal is just a lot more laid back as a country and its people are more relaxed. I loved that about being in Nepal.
On our second day, we went to the Bottlers Nepal Limited (BNL) campus where we learned a bit about Nepal as a country from the Director of BNL, Puneet Vatshney, and also took a tour of its bottling plant. We couldn’t take photos inside the plant, but suffice it to say that it was fascinating to see how Coca-Cola’s beverages get mixed and bottled and the steps it takes to get to the final product. Everything is precise, measured, and exact on the soda’s assembly line to maintain the quality of the drinks.
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.
The energy and enthusiasm was palpable as we walked into a room full of eager women entrepreneurs role-playing the everyday dynamic between business owners and their customers. While the room was loaded with fun and laughter during this exercise, its importance was not lost on any of the women who had come to the campus of Coca-Cola Bottlers Nepal Limited’s (BNL) 5by20 training, an initiative to empower 10,000 women business owners across Nepal by 2020. Even though these women are already a part of Kathmandu’s bustling community of urban shop owners, they had come because they realized there are more business skills to learn, hone, and improve. And, as women in micro-enterprise the more skills they learn, the more they can earn for their households in a country where men overwhelmingly dominate the private sector.
It’s been raining virtually nonstop since we arrived in Kathmandu on Sunday morning. There were downpours all day without any let up until the evening. I hope we get to see the sun on Tuesday. It’s the end of the monsoon season in Nepal, but I don’t think the weather quite wants to get rid of the rain yet.
Today was our very first site visit for this Nepal trip to see Coca-Cola’s rebuilding efforts after last year’s earthquake as well as their work with women in their global #5by20 program that will empower five million women by 2020 across Coca-Cola’s value chain.
Today, we focused on how Coca-Cola is helping local NGOs rebuild after the quake as well as how Coca-Cola employees joined as a team to push through the crisis they endured after two very sizeable earthquakes.
You can read about our visit to a village about an hour and a half away from Kathmandu and how a local NGO is using innovative ways to create sustainable communities.
Last year I remember exactly where I was when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal on April 25. I was on my way to Haiti to report on maternal health, and really good friends of mine from the International Reporting Project had been in Nepal for a very short time on a reporting trip when the quake hit. I remember tweeting them to see if everything was okay. Thankfully they were and wrote amazing, insightful articles from their harrowing experience on the ground. Even though I wasn’t in Nepal, knowing people who were and reported once the quake happened brought the crisis close to home.
The way in which countries respond to disasters varies. One thing is certain: governments cannot shoulder massive disaster relief alone. I learned this once I saw the coordinated one-year disaster relief in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Relief, I’ve learned, is always a combination of public and private partnerships that work in tandem to benefit citizens that have been hardest hit. Sometimes it is not easy and the coordination may be a bit slow-going, but the truth is private companies that have apositive, established footprint in countries with an excellent track record can benefit government and NGO partners with logistics support, private enterprise expertise, and most importantly finances.