January 25, 2020

The term “rubbish” brings to mind objects of no value, unwanted items set to be discarded.

But in the world of recycling and the circular economy, every type of rubbish has its own value depending on the quality of its materials, demand and available recycling technology. Waste made of valuable materials such as steel, glass, paper, cloth or even higher-grade plastic is much sought-after by scavengers. At the bottom of the rubbish, hierarchy is low-grade plastics, such as single-use bags, snack packages, and straws. These low-grade plastics often end up causing damage to the environment and are particularly harmful to marine life. Plastic items take 500 years to fully decompose.

However, low-grade plastic waste is gaining value at a community located in Rangsit in Pathum Thani province, thanks to the help of university Researchers. Ban Eua Arthorn Khlong Rangsit Community is making money from recycling and selling shopping bags made of discarded single-use plastic and snack bags or leftover 3-in-1 coffee sachets.

In the past, this kind of refuse was turned down by recycling shops. Each day, community residents, many of them elderly with plenty of time on their hands, help to collect discarded single-use plastic bags and sachets and take them to the community recycling club to be processed in a “heat press”.

The machine was donated by a team of researchers at the Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, which is a neighbor of the community. The heat press gives unwanted low-grade plastic waste a new lease of life in the form of a plastic laminate sheet. The laminate sheet is highly durable and water-proof, so members of the group decided to make new plastic bags out of it.

Katya Pha-Kham, 58, says straws and single-use plastic bags have now become valuable items for recycling in the community. To make it look more presentable, residents also add color and patterns to the bags. Since the beginning of the year, residents have already produced over 1,000 bags which they sell for 40-80 baht a piece, depending on the size and design. Katya Pha-Kham, 58, a member of the group, said the project brings extra income for the elderly.

“One person can do up to 80 bags per day if he or she works diligently. We are marketing our products within the local municipality. “So far, the group earned almost 12,000 baht from selling these eco-friendly bags. We are already developing new products, including stationery items such as files and mouse mats,” said Ms. Kateeya.

The government’s policy encouraging consumers and retailers to reduce their use of single-use plastic bags has also helped drive demand for the shopping bags that the community recycles group produces, she said. “But what benefits the community most is not the money per se,” said Ms. Kateeya. “It is our ability to manage and control rubbish in the community. In the past, we did not know what to do with the overwhelming amount of plastic waste. Now, we can do away with it while earning a little extra income too.”

Kullawadee Sungsanit, a lecturer at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi and one of the members of the team responsible for donating the heat-press, said recycling is not the only objective of the project, which started last year. “Of course, we wanted to implement technology that can recycle single-use and low-grade plastic items that are usually discarded on a local level,” Ms. Kullawadee told media.

“But we also wanted to create an extra source of income for the elderly.” Waroonsiri Jakarbutr, head of the research team said the achievement of the project is not just the successful adoption of recycling technology. “The reward of this project is knowledge, not machines or technology. Researchers and community residents work together to implement sustainable solutions for rubbish management.”

Circular solution: Assistant Professor Waroonsiri Jakarbutr says the scheme offers a sustainable solution for the community to manage refuse. The research team did not want to just donate technology to the community, according to Asst Prof Waroonsiri.

“Researchers and community residents had a great deal of discussion in order to understand what residents want and what researchers can offer. “They told our researchers that what they wanted to do was ‘add value’ to the low-grade plastics.

“So we proposed the idea of creating a reusable laminate plastic sheet that could be used to make saleable products,” said Asst Prof Waroonsiri. In terms of technology, the challenge was to develop a cost-effective machine that could be used unsupervised by elderly members of the community recycling club. The device they came up with cost about 10,000 baht to build and is easy to maintain.

Asst Prof Waroonsiri said the research team is already in talks with Pathum Thani Municipality about extending the project to other communities in the province. “Ultimately, we hope that this rubbish recycling scheme will be promoted in every community across the country,” she said.