The Plastic Bottle Problem

If you live in the UK you will be more than aware of the COP26 conference but did you watch Panorama this week? If not you should catch it on the BBC iPlayer.

For those outside the UK, the program was entitled Coca-Cola’s 100 billion bottle problem. It is a huge problem, there are billions of single use plastic bottles created by the Coca-Cola company that are littering the world.

Tempting as it is, this is not a lambasting of the company, just an attempt to highlight the problem. To be fair they have said that they will recycle a bottle for each one they sell. But there is a catch, they cannot collect and recycle enough of them!

So what happens to them? Well, the banner picture for this article is just one example of the rubbish tips where single use plastic is found in huge piles (this is in Kampala, Uganda). Worse still, local people scavenge there to find these bottles and get paid a pittance to do so, 4 pence per kilo and they collect 3 kilos per day!

With no child care, the adults are forced to bring their children with them. And yes, they work too, barefoot in hot, smelly and sometimes dangerous conditions.

There are many factors in play here:

  1. Coca Cola cannot collect enough bottles to recycle
  2. Fossil fuels are used to produce new plastic
  3. Cheap labour is used by middlemen to retrieve plastic
  4. Everyone gets rich apart from the workers and their children

This is where a little bit of Systems Thinking (or as I like to call it, joining up the dots) comes in. How about this is a suggestion?

Someone designs a cart, maybe like a golf buggy or with tracks like a tank. It could be solar powered and be capable of traversing rubbish heaps. Such a vehicle, combined with better picking technology (not hands) would allow workers to retrieve much more waste in a day and hence earn more.

Companies such as Coca Cola would get more plastic back to recycle which would cut down on fossil fuel use and result in less plastic clogging up our environment.

But, I hear you say, this is still exploitation. Well, what tends to happen when sometimes tough and thankless tasks are carried out, we find that the workers are often very resourceful and will find ways to improve things. So whilst we might start off with my theoretical cart, we may finish up with something completely different. We might even be able to cut out the middleman too.

All we (or Coca Cola) has to do is provide some seed funding or maybe some tech to get the ball rolling.

I’m not saying that this is even a workable solution but we should be thinking about how we can connect different things in order to solve multiple related problems. In this case recycling, pollution, overuse of fossil fuels, cheap labour and poverty.

The Plastic Bottle Problem