A PET collector’s journey amidst a raging pandemic

How Mahesh creates his livelihood around plastic, impacts of COVID-19 and waste segregation in Sri

The importance of recycling is highlighted globally because waste has a negative effect on the natural
environment. In some capacity, recycling also gives society an excellent reason to play a supporting role
in keeping our planet clean. Recycling also has other benefits; one such is the economic opportunities
generated through the creation of jobs.
Since the 1980s, individuals and small and medium-sized businesses have created a livelihood around
plastic waste collection from different industries and sectors in Sri Lanka. Since then, the country has
continued to see an increase in recyclers and plastic waste collectors. According to the Central
Environmental Authority (CEA) the registered number has grown from 37 in 2007 to over 230 in 2019.
One such collector is Mahesh, who has created a living by collecting post-consumer plastic waste (PET
and HDPE) from hotels and hospitals in Galle. He has been in the waste collection industry for ten
years, which has helped him support his family, including his two children in grades 8 and 2.
On a typical workday, Mahesh starts by driving his lorry to pick up plastic waste from locations in Galle.
His collection trail includes gathering waste from around 40 hotels in Unawatuna and collecting plastic
trash brought to him by the Army camps in Galle, Kamburugamuwa, and Boossa. He also collects the
plastic trash that the Galle Harbour retrieves from the ocean and along the beaches.
Though Sri Lanka has seen an increase in recyclers and plastic waste collectors, COVID-19 has
presented a new set of challenges to Mahesh and his business. Currently, he collects enough PET to fill 2
TATA Lorries because of hotel closures, equaling 1,000kgs a month. Before COVID-19, he collected
and sent 4 loads, approximately 2,500-4,000kgs of PET per month, to Sri Lanka’s biggest recycler, Eco
However, issues of waste collection for Mahesh are more significant than the pandemic itself. After
being in the industry for a decade, Mahesh has witnessed first-hand problems in the recycling journey,
especially at the collection stage, at a household and commercial level. The increase in population,
changes in consumption patterns, and lack of awareness of waste disposal are contributing factors to a
poor waste management and segregation issue plaguing the country. “People dispose all types of waste
together. Waste is mixed from the hotels I collect from. Everyone must be aware of segregating it. This
is because it makes life easier for collectors like myself to pick it up,” noted Mahesh.
He also noted the lack of plastic waste segregation from hotels could be due to the fear staff members
have with separating waste disposed by guests due to COVID-19, which has further complicated his

Mahesh also sees the benefits of recycling because it redirects plastic waste taken to landfills and moved
to recycling facilities to give it new life. Recycled PET can be turned into products such as fiber and
apparel, even the 2019 ICC World Cup cricket jersey for Sri Lanka was made from waste plastic
recovered from the beaches!
Understanding that undisposed plastic waste across the country is a severe issue, Eco Spindles has
played a significant role in growing Mahesh’s business over the past few years. To assist him further, they
plan to install a bailing machine to help bail the collected plastic. Installing an on-site bailing machine will
assist Mahesh as it compresses the waste, which saves space when transporting waste to recyclers from
his facility.
The CEA has also assisted Mahesh by installing a hut needed for waste collection. “COVID has disrupted
business continuity. I need to be proactive. I hope the CEA can provide additional assistance by helping
me get a recycling machine that can recycle more than just PET alone,” stated Mahesh.
Mahesh wants to alter his business structure in a rapidly changing environment, accelerated by COVID- 19 He wants to install a molding machine to recycle other types of plastic, where he can collect items
like yoghurt cups that are thrown into the environment. “If I have this machine, I can get good use from
it by making products out of waste like flower pots and basins,” mentioned Mahesh.
Mahesh also noted the impact COVID-19 has had on employment. In the services sector,
accommodation, transport, food, and personal services reduced employment due to local shutdowns
and travel restrictions imposed for local and overseas tourists. He is confident that expanding his
business and collection network will provide new employment opportunities to those who lost their
jobs during the pandemic in his collection business.
Mahesh’s story is one amongst the 200+ collectors in Sri Lanka. Making sure that plastic ends up in
recycling centers is more than just a job for Mahesh. He is doing his part to ensure that leftovers of our
waste are recycled into new life. Echoing Mahesh’s sentiments, everyone has a role to play if we are to
improve and increase recycling in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has over 300 PET plastic collection bins across the
island in leading supermarkets, community centers and places of public gathering. Segregate your waste,
dispose it responsibly.

Transferring collected waste plastic to Eco-Spindles collection lorry.
Mahesh standing beside the PET plastic waste collected.

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