A greener future built with plastics

(Gillian Hall/SUNY-ESF)

On a beautiful late November day in a country nestled among the deepest valleys and highest peaks in the world, a young entrepreneur named Karma Yonten led nine researchers on a tour of his place of business. What appears to be a simple recycling facility unfurls before the visitors into an impressive infrastructural attempt to keep this incredible landscape clear. Explosive passion poured from his every word, convincing the researchers that there are very few as driven as him when it comes to trash. Dubbed the “Trash King” by locals, he has earned well deserved respect in the environmental realm due to his groundbreaking initiatives aimed at managing the huge influx of non-degradable trash into the country of Bhutan.

In the past decade or so, trash has become a mounting problem for a tiny county that only recently opened to development. More traditional practices in Bhutan made use of biodegradable goods, but as the inevitable push towards development sweeps the country, the proliferation of plastic wrapped products is now occurring. Locals are noticing street drains clogged with lumps of translucent plastic or the glint of metallic wrappers floating through rice paddies, the result of inadequate collection and treatment facilities. Bhutan has struggled to find the resources to build the treatment facilities, giving rise to the serious question of where trash should go. There are several landfill sites, but because of the harsh Himalayan terrain, it is not easy to locate new ones. Additionally, these sites do not have treatment facilities or runoff catchment features, meaning that when rain falls, it just filters off into ground water. A representative from Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlements explains that “the landfill is exhausted in terms of capacity,” and that the “volume of waste going into the landfill must be minimized by reducing, reusing, and recycling more.” Remnants of packaging are free to drift away into the woods and fields. “I was worried the plastic bag would become our national flower,” Karma declares. Like many in Bhutan, Karma shares a deep-seated passion for protecting the environment. Few countries have been as devout to the environment as Bhutan has, and even fewer can say that more than 60% of their land cover is forest or that they are carbon negative. To say that the country is full of individuals driven by the desire to uphold environmental values would be an understatement. Karma Yonten is no exception.

After seeing how the proliferation of trash has affected Bhutan, Karma was inspired to establish his own recycling company to help battle the problem. The company, called Greener Way, diverts trash from the landfill and takes it to a sorting facility, where recyclables are separated out. The unique thing about Greener Way is that not only does it sort and sell recyclables, it transforms its output from plastic scraps to industrial strength poles. This is done by layering several different materials to create multi-layer plastics; plastics that are more resistant to tearing and stretching. These multi layered plastics are then melted and molded into different sized poles that can be used for both construction and electric fencing. “Scientists say that plastic takes thousands of years to completely break down, so if what they are saying is true, why not use that to our advantage? We want to build things that will last, so let’s use what we already have in front of us,” Karma reasons. The main goal of the company is to reduce reliance on the landfill by diverting trash from it. Greener Way also highly values finding innovative ways to recycle and re use the trash. By taking trash and turning it into something that has value, not only is Karma making money, but also diminishing what was once a nuisance and a seemingly unsolvable problem.

Karma Yonten is fully committed to meeting this problem at every place it manifests, including in schools and communities. The company takes on educational initiatives and sets up workshops to inform citizens on how they should properly recycle and why non-biodegradable products are hazardous to human health and the environment. In this way, greener way not only remedies the problem but also makes a bold attempt at getting to its roots.

Greener Way’s technical and educational initiatives have resulted in being able to divert 1,320 tons of recyclables from the landfill. While overflow still seems to be a pending threat, Karma’s activities have inspired the pop of other recycling companies near other landfills in Bhutan. These industrial poles are a need driven product and there is a long way to go before the resources needed to create them will become scarce. This idea may be the bud that blossoms into endless practical uses for something that would otherwise be almost impossible to get rid of. As Karma states, “trash is money”, and the possibilities of what we can do with non-degradable wastes today seem almost endless. Karma’s innovative idea launches the beginning of finding more technical and effective ways to reuse trash. For the country of Bhutan, a greener future may actually be built with plastic.

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