PET collector’s journey amidst a raging pandemic

How Mahesh creates his livelihood around plastic, impacts of COVID-19 and waste segregation in Sri Lanka

The importance of recycling is highlighted globally because waste has a negative effect on the natural environment. In some capacity, recycling also gives society an excellent reason to play a supporting role in keeping our planet clean. Recycling also has other benefits; one such is the economic opportunities generated through the creation of jobs.

Since the 1980s, individuals and small and medium-sized businesses have created a livelihood around plastic waste collection from different industries and sectors in Sri Lanka. Since then, the country has continued to see an increase in recyclers and plastic waste collectors. According to the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) the registered number has grown from 37 in 2007 to over 230 in 2019.

One such collector is Mahesh, who has created a living by collecting post-consumer plastic waste (PET and HDPE) from hotels and hospitals in Galle. He has been in the waste collection industry for ten years, which has helped him support his family, including his two children in grades 8 and 2.

On a typical workday, Mahesh starts by driving his lorry to pick up plastic waste from locations in Galle. His collection trail includes gathering waste from around 40 hotels in Unawatuna and collecting plastic trash brought to him by the Army camps in Galle, Kamburugamuwa, and Boossa. He also collects the plastic trash that the Galle Harbour retrieves from the ocean and along the beaches.

Though Sri Lanka has seen an increase in recyclers and plastic waste collectors, COVID-19 has presented a new set of challenges to Mahesh and his business. Currently, he collects enough PET to fill 2 TATA Lorries because of hotel closures, equaling 1,000kgs a month. Before COVID-19, he collected and sent 4 loads, approximately 2,500-4,000kgs of PET per month, to Sri Lanka’s biggest recycler, Eco Spindles.

However, issues of waste collection for Mahesh are more significant than the pandemic itself. After being in the industry for a decade, Mahesh has witnessed first-hand problems in the recycling journey, especially at the collection stage, at a household and commercial level. The increase in population, changes in consumption patterns, and lack of awareness of waste disposal are contributing factors to a poor waste management and segregation issue plaguing the country. “People dispose all types of waste together. Waste is mixed from the hotels I collect from. Everyone must be aware of segregating it. This is because it makes life easier for collectors like myself to pick it up,” noted Mahesh.

He also noted the lack of plastic waste segregation from hotels could be due to the fear staff members have with separating waste disposed by guests due to COVID-19, which has further complicated his task.

Mahesh also sees the benefits of recycling because it redirects plastic waste taken to landfills and moved to recycling facilities to give it new life. Recycled PET can be turned into products such as fiber and apparel, even the 2019 ICC World Cup cricket jersey for Sri Lanka was made from waste plastic recovered from the beaches!

Understanding that undisposed plastic waste across the country is a severe issue, Eco Spindles has played a significant role in growing Mahesh’s business over the past few years. To assist him further, they plan to install a bailing machine to help bail the collected plastic. Installing an on-site bailing machine will assist Mahesh as it compresses the waste, which saves space when transporting waste to recyclers from his facility.

The CEA has also assisted Mahesh by installing a hut needed for waste collection. “COVID has disrupted business continuity. I need to be proactive. I hope the CEA can provide additional assistance by helping me get a recycling machine that can recycle more than just PET alone,” stated Mahesh.

Mahesh wants to alter his business structure in a rapidly changing environment, accelerated by COVID-19. He wants to install a molding machine to recycle other types of plastic, where he can collect items like yoghurt cups that are thrown into the environment. “If I have this machine, I can get good use from it by making products out of waste like flower pots and basins,” mentioned Mahesh.

Mahesh also noted the impact COVID-19 has had on employment. In the services sector, accommodation, transport, food, and personal services reduced employment due to local shutdowns and travel restrictions imposed for local and overseas tourists. He is confident that expanding his business and collection network will provide new employment opportunities to those who lost their jobs during the pandemic in his collection business.

Mahesh’s story is one amongst the 200+ collectors in Sri Lanka. Making sure that plastic ends up in recycling centers is more than just a job for Mahesh. He is doing his part to ensure that leftovers of our waste are recycled into new life. Echoing Mahesh’s sentiments, everyone has a role to play if we are to improve and increase recycling in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has over 300 PET plastic collection bins across the island in leading supermarkets, community centers and places of public gathering. Segregate your waste, dispose it responsibly.