Opinion: Young entrepreneur finds worth in plastic waste

Pathum’s love towards keeping the environment plastic-free drives his passion for implementing a viable system for waste collection in Sri Lanka

Celebrated every year on the 12th of August, Youth Day magnifies the actions of young people who aspire to repair the earth we live in, through their entrepreneurial decisions to solve the world’s most pressing issues.

As industrialisation and population increase, Sri Lanka is battling a threatening matter; the growth in irresponsible plastic waste disposal/management. Plastic consumption on the island sees a 16% increase, where 265,000 metric tons are consumed annually. Realising the damage this could cause, a young entrepreneur, Pathum Niranjana, started P&L Industries based in Athurugiriya in 2011 at the age of 20 to collect PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) plastic and other plastics.

A labour of love

Now, 30, he recalled why he started the company, attributing it to the love he has for keeping the environment free of plastic waste. “Before starting P&L Industries, I worked for a company that collected PET plastic. I noticed that plastic was everywhere, from the sides of the road to the waterways. I then realised that I needed to venture out and diversify my business by not only limiting it to collecting PET plastic but also other types of plastic waste, too,” mentioned Pathum.

On a typical day, he deploys his team to collect and purchase waste plastic from municipal councils in the Western Province, after the respective municipalities collect from households and offices. Depending on the plastics’ quality, he buys PET bottles from municipal collectors for Rs. 20-30 a kilo and other plastics (HDPE and PP) for Rs. 60-70 a kilo. Every month, his team collects approximately 450,000 PET bottles and 70-80 metric tons of other plastics, then sold to recyclers to create value-added products. One such is Sri Lanka’s largest plastic recycler, Eco Spindles, who also assisted P&L Industries by giving a loan during the pandemic when collectors like Pathum saw a reduction in income.

Though his business operations are now thriving, Pathum faced multiple challenges as a young business owner. When he started, establishing the business was problematic due to the lack of people/businesses with the necessary expertise in waste collection. Additionally, he required a team of employees who understood the trade while securing funds to buy a space to store plastic waste collected.

Reversing stigmas  

“Furthermore, an issue we faced then, and even now, is the stigma behind waste collectors as many people think it’s a 3rd class business. But, it’s a business where you can make profits while also doing a service to the environment and our island home. Most have stigmatised the job as just a role of a bothal paththara karaya, but the industry and the role has evolved into a formal employment opportunity,” highlighted Pathum.

Despite these challenges, Pathum persevered to see his dream materialise and reverse the stigma. Today, he owns four vehicles to collect, purchase and transport plastic to recyclers and has employed 15 people. “I have plans to grow my waste collection business. I want to include components of a recycling facility. So I bought a crusher machine to crush PET plastic into pellets, which I can sell to organisations that can make products such as yarn and crush HDPE plastic to make Alkathene pipes used in agriculture,” stated Pathum.

An opportunity to thrive

On his journey to expand P&L Industries, he believes Sri Lanka can thrive in the waste collection sector since COVID-19 has restricted imports. “If imported, PET pellets cost between Rs. 300-400 a kilo, while locally, I can sell to companies for Rs.150 a kilo. Because of this, it is important to know that banning PET bottles is not practical since we don’t have a cost-effective alternative. Glass is too costly and difficult to transport,” indicated Pathum.

Pathum is a reminder that hard work and dedication are key pillars to success. Astonished that plastic waste is becoming a widely recognisable problem, he is on a quest to be part of a system that can provide viable solutions to this issue. “If collectors like myself do not collect and buy plastic waste, we run the risk of releasing the waste to open dumps/landfills, instead of sending it to recyclers who can give it new life,” emphasised Pathum.

Recycling ensures that a circular economy is established where the value of plastic bottles continues indefinitely. Pathum, as a collector, has become an integral part of this sustainable way of doing business.

Pathum Niranjana, 30, is the owner of P&L Industries based in Athurugiriya Sri Lanka, and he attended Athurugiriya Mahamathya Vidyalaya. He encourages people who are interested in selling and buying plastic waste to work with him to ensure there is a sound plastic waste recycling mechanism in Sri Lanka.”