Shea Flynn, class of 2020, spent her summer in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she interned for The Coca-Cola Company working for Bottlers Nepal Limited on their local World Without Waste initiatives.
Today I toured the only operational PET recycling center in Nepal, where I learned how a drained and discarded plastic bottle can be reincarnated into … another plastic bottle.
Each month, Himalayan Life Plastic converts about 120 tons of collected plastic (PET) bottles into 65 tons of plastic granules. The pre-used bottles come to them, crushed and baled into cubes, from other collection and baling facilities throughout Nepal. The employees here are provided with safety equipment to sort through the piles, dividing colors, removing lids and labels, and ultimately passing the naked bottles on for cleaning and processing. The clear, crushed bottles are shredded into flakes that are then melted into a liquid substance, similar to what drips out of a hot glue gun. This liquid is injected into cold water, pulled into thin strands, and emerges into hardened plastic wires. These wires are then chipped into tiny granules, which will be mixed with virgin (non-recycled) plastic granules and sold to preform manufacturers. Preform is what eventually becomes the new bottle. Fun fact: that standard 2-liter soda bottle that comes with your pizza delivery order actually starts off as an above-average-sized test tube. Beverage companies buy the preform and then, with equipment in their own bottling plants, use high heat to expand the preform tube into the bottle size you recognize on the shelves of your grocery stores and gas stations. However, not all bottling companies are using this available, recycled preform mixture. Some continue producing using only virgin materials.
So, why did I, a graduate student in Georgetown’s Global Human Development program, tour a recycling facility as part of my summer field internship to learn all of this? You are probably guessing I am working for an environmental NGO or a big donor like USAID or the MacArthur Foundation, right? Try again.
This summer I am interning with The Coca-Cola Company in Kathmandu, Nepal, working for Bottlers Nepal Limited on their local World Without Waste initiatives. Bottlers Nepal is an authorized bottler of the Coca-Cola Company.
Coca-Cola aims to be 100% packaging neutral by 2030. What does that mean, exactly? Coca-Cola is:
Investing in innovative packaging and exploring package-free alternatives for their products;
Striving to collect and recycle 100% of the equivalent of their primary packaging; and
Working with big environmental partners to increase awareness and promote behavior change around recycling with their consumers.
To meet these ambitious goals and measure progress, each country in which Coca-Cola operates has annual milestones. For example, by the end of this year, Coca-Cola will need to have recycled the equivalent of 48% of the total amount of bottles they produce in Nepal to stay on track—not an easy undertaking in a country with limited financial and institutional support in solid waste management. Did I mention there is only one PET plastic recycling center currently operating in the entire country?
Bottlers Nepal, with support from The Coca-Cola Foundation (TCCF), has already done some pretty amazing work to kick off the year-old initiative. Through partnerships with organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Creasion, the Himalayan Climate Initiative (HCI), GIZ, and others, they have helped make one of the national parks in Nepal plastic free, launched a Clean-Up Everest Campaign (#CleanOurPride), and supported social enterprises focused on safe PET bottle collection and recycling. A project by Creasion, called Recycler Saathi, was awarded funding by TCCF this past spring and is working to establish another PET recycling facility in Bharatpur.
So, what am I doing here with Coca-Cola?
Under the supervision of Irina Karki Gurung and Chandramohan Gupta of the Nepal and India Southwest Asia Public Affairs, Communications, and Sustainability (PACS) teams, respectively, and with support from the aforementioned partners, I am conducting research on the PET plastic recycling ecosystem in Nepal and Southwest Asia. I am collecting data through an extensive literature and policy review, meeting with recycling and environmental experts, conducting interviews with local government officials, and sitting in on discussions with some of Coca-Cola’s key accounts as they reflect on their current recycling practices. Hopefully, through all of these activities, I will be able to summarize some key challenges and opportunities where Coca-Cola can further support the recycling of PET plastic in Nepal. I will also meet with various departments at Bottlers Nepal to ensure that any recommendations I make are realistic and relevant to the local context.
Part of Coca-Cola’s greater World Without Waste strategy is ensuring that all PET bottles, not just their own, make it through an ethical and legal recycling system. Therefore, one of the primary objectives Coca-Cola and my research focus on is how to ensure that the informal mechanisms of waste collection employed in much of South Asia still respect human rights and pay fair wages. Nagar Mitra, or “Friends of the City”, is a social enterprise under the Himalayan Climate Initiative that has been working to provide waste collectors with safe working conditions, trainings, social benefits like health insurance, and scholarships for their children. With support from The Coca-Cola Foundation, Bottlers Nepal, and other partners, Nagar Mitra is working to replicate this model among waste workers, or kabadiwallas, throughout the Kathmandu area. The masterminds at the Himalayan Climate Initiative behind these efforts are critical contributors to my work this summer.
A second focus for this research is the lifecycle of the plastic bottle in Nepal. Companies today are becoming more cognizant of how their products are sourced, but what about how they are disposed of? Until April 2016, Nepal was able to export its collected and baled bottles to India. However, when India outlawed the importation of recycled PET plastic, Nepal needed to come up with a new solution to close the loop. This is still an incredible challenge for the recycling sector here, and 90% of recycled PET bottles still find their way illegally to India. Therefore, Coca-Cola is taking care to identify responsible channels for PET recycling, so that more bottles do not end up in landfills or across borders.
I know what you are thinking: Coca-Cola is an enormous, powerful company. Couldn’t most big businesses care less about development or sustainability? Several people have already asked, “How do you feel ethically about being a development professional working for a multinational corporation?”
The truth is, after a year in graduate school, I believe that businesses (and the private sector, more generally) are indispensable to improving living standards across the globe for three reasons:
Businesses build economies.
Businesses are not bound to the same financial and political constraints as the public sector.
Businesses are often the most knowledgeable and capable actors in improving their own products and practices.
First, for a country to emerge from poverty requires a combination of good governance and economic opportunity. Economic opportunity increases jobs, which decreases unemployment and puts more money into citizens’ pockets to spend on more things, including better food, school-fees for children, and better health care. Much of what I have worked on in the last six years of my career, through the Peace Corps and in public health, has focused on how to alleviate symptoms of stagnant economic development. This is extremely important work because it addresses immediate need, particularly in humanitarian crises and disaster relief. However, once the temporary aid has come and gone, the sluggish economy and weak institutions often remain unprepared to respond to the next crisis, perpetuating a cycle of dependency. Investment is needed in developing countries to eventually raise income levels and improve the effectiveness and accountability of political and economic institutions. Businesses can make decisions about where to invest, not only for profit, but also for the benefit of society.
Second, several years of working on U.S.-government funded projects have shed light on the many challenges faced by aid organizations and nonprofits. Whether it is the changing priorities of the current administration or the never-ending need to prove why your project should still be funded every year, the public sector has a lot of obligations that lay outside of just the people on the receiving end of that support. It is important for Congress and American citizens to know what their contributions are achieving abroad. This ensures transparency and helps guide future decisions around foreign aid. However, it can also stunt innovation because it deters taking risks. If you are already in debt and have a million other bills to pay, why would you make the risky investment over the one that seems to be giving you just enough return to keep you happy? While businesses are often obligated to their shareholders, they usually have more flexibility in funding innovation and working on long-term strategies. After all, they will still have the same bottom line, even after the next Presidential election.
Finally, rapid globalization has sparked a growing concern for how international companies do business across borders. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, new ethical dilemmas arise regarding labor practices, trade of hazardous materials, waste management, and political involvement. In an ideal world, each country’s government would be able to establish minimum ethical and legal standards for corporate engagement that are both aligned with the country’s own culture and objectives and void of violating human rights. In that world, the country’s government would also have the means to successfully enforce these standards among all the of companies and organizations engaged within its borders. Yet, where governments fail, companies themselves have the greatest awareness of how their practices and products impact communities abroad, are the most capable of shaping and evaluating them, and are the most proximate to their implementation. I believe that it is the moral obligation of every company to establish a means of evaluating how their actions influence humanity. Additionally, the growing global economy and the elevated consciousness of the consumer demands that companies confront their past negligence in preventing human and environmental suffering, and instead, wield their existence as a means to foster future prosperity.
You might think I am crazy. Can business really be the answer to some of the world’s most pressing problems? Isn’t business, in fact, a cause of some of the world’s most pressing problems?
It is true that big business has rarely done what is best for the developing world. In fact, a harsh history shows that multinational corporations from richer, industrialized nations have used the developing world as a source for cheap labor and resource extraction while simultaneously rendering it a dumping ground for hazardous waste and unwanted, unsafe products from their own countries.
Now, the world is changing, and business is following suit. A lot of companies out there, like Coca-Cola, have pledged to not only improve their own practices, but to also be proactive in protecting the environment and giving back to communities. I don’t believe in corporate social responsibility efforts done by businesses that still actively and willingly cause harm to the environment and human beings, but I do believe in companies that are undergoing institutional change to make the world a better place. That is why I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be interning for Coca-Cola this summer with Bottlers Nepal.
I truly believe that their World Without Waste initiative has the ability to transform the recycling ecosystems in the countries where they operate. Whether it’s reforming their own product design, instituting collection schemes, or putting resources into the hands of the right partners, Coca-Cola is positioned to make a profound impact on the planet, and I feel very lucky to be a small part of it.