Of all of the packaging that Tetra Pak produces globally, nearly 27% of it is recycled worldwide. Yet in Pakistan, Tetra Pak has a higher rate of recycling than the global rate, with nearly 41% of Tetra Pak products in Pakistan successfully recycled.
What makes this statistic even more impressive is that this does not only include the materials that Tetra Pak collects and recycles from its own factories but also those products that either are in the homes of end users that buy Tetra Pak packaged products like milk and juice from their clients like Nestle, Shakarganj or FrieslandCampina.
The aluminum in the packages is separated, and nearly 75% of the packaging is made from tree/sugarcane/cellulose materials that can be extracted and reused to make paper products. The rest of the plastic material from the packaging is compressed into planks that then go into plastic furniture and the like.
How has Tetra Pak managed to pull this off? With the help of Green Earth Recycling plant, a massive recycling plant in the heart of Lahore with the capacity to recycle nearly 100 tonnes of material in a day. Founded and headed by Zaffar Bhatti, who is interestingly the son of the late Major Aziz Bhatti, Green Earth Recycling has been operating for decades. In this entire time, they have witnessed a complete indifference towards the concept of recycling transform into a care to do away with plastics from both large and small companies, as well as the general public.
Their business story has been one of perseverance and forward thinking, and because of that they now have a first mover advantage on a business that is likely to have a continued rise in demand over the next few years. A major part of this story have been companies like Tetra Pak.
Green Earth Recycling was started in the 1980s by Zaffar Bhatti. At the time that East and West Germany were reunifying, there was a great push from the Western side to modernise the country’s industry. There were already recycling plants in the West by then, and Bhatti was able to set up his recycling plant using machinery and technology that the Germans were getting rid of because they wanted a fresh start on this front.
By collecting plastic waste and by signing with different organizations to take their plastic waste off their hands, Green Earth began to repurpose this plastic waste as green furniture. If you are not familiar with what this is, the very specific green benches and tables you often see in parks are made out of this material.
“The first thing we targeted were plastic bags. These were everywhere in the country, and with the technology that we have it was easy to compress them and turn them into planks that we could then use for our purposes,” says Zaffar Bhatti. “Plastics have not been around long enough for us to know what their life is and how long it takes for them to biodegrade. Some scientists used to say it takes a hundred years, but now we know that it could be as long as four or five hundred years as well.”
“This nature of plastic is what has always been its greatest flaw and its greatest problem. Now, we are taking that flaw and turning it into its biggest advantage. Because plastic does not biodegrade or get damaged, the furniture we make lasts, holds its shape, and is a win-win situation.”
Green Earth Recycling’s business model is based on converting plastic waste into useful “recycled plastic furniture” giving the plastic a second life, through a successful combination of material and technology. The company’s sustainably made furniture is resistant to natural damage and helps save trees while reducing solid plastic waste.
The concept is to create innovative sustainable materials that reduce the negative impact of plastics on the environment and drive down dependence on natural resources such as wood. Initially, however, there was very little understanding of what this company was doing. People did not completely understand the need to recycle and trash heaps seemed a distant problem. “There were still some companies that knew this was a worthwhile service we were providing. Take Tetra Pak, we have only started doing larger scale projects with them since around 2013, but we have been working with them since as far back as 1995. Back then Germany was also outsourcing its plastic waste to us,” says Bhatti. “However, the entire concept was for us to make sure that even if we got a plastic that was difficult to recycle, we would still take it on. If we did not have the technology to deal with a plastic product, then we would design and produce solutions tailored for the companies that came to us.”
“We try to think of ourselves as a multifaceted recycling programme, not just a factory that has some machines. If we can’t recycle, we will provide a management solution for it. There was very little concept of this a few years ago, but companies like Tetra Pak are conscientious and now many large companies are also trying to cut back on their carbon footprint and so come to us.
Today, Green Earth has many major clients across Pakistan, including companies like Unilever. They are often booked for four or five months and there is often a long waiting list to get in on the service. However, this was not always the case. “The most challenging part of the equation has been raising awareness. There is such a dire lack of awareness about recycling. It has gotten better recently but it has been a long road getting here. Campaigns from corporations, from us, and from the government have all played a part in this,” explains Bhatti.
Challenges and future plans
The solutions that Green Earth offers are elegant and they work, which is why they are getting work as well. There are advantages to being in the business before anyone else, most of all the fact that everyone comes to you. WASA is among the recent clients of Green Earth, and that is despite the fact that they are a government agency and do not normally work without tenders and owning some stake in the company. But since no one else is doing this work at such a large scale, they have no other option.
“We only have very small competitors, and some of them were actually trained by us. When we set up, it was an investment of around 8-9 crores, and if someone wants to do it now then they will have to spend around 12-15 crores just on setting up the machinery, not counting the infrastructure and area. So it is expensive to set up, and we already have a reputation that makes it difficult to break into the business,” says Bhatti. “However we want more players out there because there is more than enough room for it. Many players can make money here and in the larger scheme of things we will be better off.”
“Daily capacity of the recycling plant is 70 tons, while so far only 50 tons of the recyclable waste material is collected from streets,” he said, adding that almost 60-65 percent of it was collected from Punjab. The pulp, obtained after the recycling process, in finished and semi-finished forms was being supplied to top paper and paper-board producers of the country. “The demand for these sheets is so high that we have advance booking agreements for it for the next four months. However, due to the limited collection of the Tetra Pak cartons waste, the demand could not be met,” Bhatti explained.
“Tetra Pak Pakistan and GER have worked hard to achieve this target as the recycling at the plant was started with almost 5 tons a day, which has now reached 50 tons a day. This means now substantial quantities of recyclable Tetra Pak cartons are being collected from the streets of the country and recycled; however, still a huge quantity of waste is not being lifted from the street for which more hard work is required.”
This seems to be a sore point for Green Earth – they have enough capacity to do even more than what they are right now, but there is not nearly enough available collecting resources. The reason Tetra Pak has a 41% rate of recycling is because the company works in collaboration with Green Earth to get as much material to the recycling plants as possible. If there was a more concentrated effort from the government, things would have been significantly easier for them.
“Things take time, admittedly, but collection is our biggest concern. Transport costs from everywhere else are so high that it seems an impossible task, but right now the government in Sindh is paying Rs7 crore a month to a contractor to simply pick and dump trash with no attention to recycling, which is such a waste of resource,” says Bhatti. “Awareness is so important, even last time when the Turkish companies were operating in Lahore, they were interested in how much they could collect to maximise profits rather than collecting and sorting so that things could improve in the bigger picture.”