Mr Friedor Jeske started to get interested in the waste issue since his involvement in a recycling study with Yangon municipality years ago, despite him coming from an entirely different academic background.
‘I was interested in the mixture of ingenuity, local logics, social stigmatisation, challenges, and poverty related to the waste,’ said Mr Jeske.
As the Program Director of Thant Myanmar, Mr Jeske shared with us his journey leading to the launch of his company. Back in 2018, on the World Environment Day, Mr Jeske along with his friends and colleagues in the development sector embarked on a social campaign named Thant Myanmar (meaning “Clean Myanmar” in Burmese) to fight against plastic pollution. The year after, they turned this movement into a company. Ever since, people who organised the movement with him left Thant Myanmar but he remained.
‘I think every movement works like this: either you drop the movement, or you turn it into a professional work. You only have two options,’ he said.
In this interview, Mr Jeske talked about his understanding of plastic waste in Myanmar and how he considers local-scale solutions to be key to a successful waste management.
Figure 1: The RKC-MPD team in an online interview with Mr Friedor Jeske.
How would you describe Thant Myanmar?
Thant Myanmar is registered as a for-profit company because in Myanmar, non-profit companies are not allowed. But in reality, the company is functioning on a non-profit basis. Before the 2021 political crisis in Myanmar, our biggest funders were Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. We did a lot of leakage surveys in the soil, on beaches and rivers to add into WB support of the National Plastic Action Plan.
But now, our work is focusing more on community-oriented themes, such as informal waste collection, household source segregation, and organic waste treatment at source. Our current financial resources come from the UN, EU, small embassy grants, and other partner organisations that work in the related fields. I think the key to survival for organisations like us is to be able to cover the entire waste stream, from upstream, to midstream, to downstream, especially in the low-income scenario.
Upstream would be basically everything around fossil fuels extraction and plastic production. The midstream starts from brand usage until the waste is generated, while the downstream is about recycling, waste management, and leakage.
What is the flagship program of Thant Myanmar?
We have a flagship program on rural waste management. In Myanmar, people living in rural areas do not have access to municipal waste management services. This is the reality of nearly every village, and the rural population needs to solve the waste management issue by themselves. In the absence of government intervention, people fall back on unsustainable means such as dumping waste in the nearby rivers or burning it.
In the past, we tried to create a designated site for the waste disposal to prevent people from burning their wastes. However, due to lack of appropriate land, our target population did not accept this initiative. Since the waste disposal site project did not work, we then moved on to propose an improved incineration operation. Based to our experience, around 90 percent of the waste in rural areas is organic, while the remaining 5 percent to 7 percent is plastic. Collecting all waste including organics puts a heavy burden on a community collection system which operates on no or very little budget.
From this experience, we recognised that source segregation was both the bottleneck and the potential key to success in setting up voluntary community-led movements in rural areas. With this in mind, I would say that the new system is working decently for now.
Figure 2: Plastic waste collection in Shan state using an agricultural vehicle.
Regarding the incineration, do you build the facility? What kind of incineration method do you use?
We are using an inventive system called a burn-cage adopted from the American military. We build the metal cages in layers and that worked amazingly well. But the system’s good functioning relies on the weather conditions. When it’s rainy, humidity becomes a problem. While when it’s dry, the temperature of the incinerator can reach 850 degrees Celsius or even higher.
I am trying to find a cleaner alternative because this incineration method produces toxic fumes. However, I need to take into consideration not just technical but financial feasibility too. The burn-cage costs around US$200-300 per unit. Meanwhile, any form of better structured incinerator would cost above $2,000. For us, the $2,000 would constitute the entire budget that we mobilised to set up the system, including the burn-cage. On top of it, more than a better incinerator, the bigger challenge lies in the acceptance of the importance of waste collection among the target communities. Raising awareness and ensuring people’s buy-in are our priorities at the moment.
Figure 3: Plastic waste incineration from village waste in Northern Shan state. The incinerated
plastic consists mainly of LDPE, MLP, flexible PP, PS. None of these materials have any recycling
value in the country.
In general, how is the plastic pollution in Myanmar? Is plastic pollution affecting the marine environment?
Plastic pollution in Myanmar is terrible. People both in urban and rural areas are accustomed to burn their waste or dispose it in nearby waterways. The monsoon rain creates flooding and strong run-offs carrying waste into the river. When we hike in the mountains and look at creeks from high up, we see a mountain of plastics.
The responsibility for disposal mainly falls on municipalities. However often their understanding on the issue as well as strong budget constraints result in the open burning of many dumps, partly on purpose. Additionally, dumps are often situated on slopes or close, sometimes in, water sources, creating strong leakages during the rainy season.
When it comes to recycling, even the remote rural area in Myanmar is relatively well covered thanks to a strong waste picker network. In cities, we observe a very high recycling rate. The informal waste pickers take out nearly everything which has some kind of value. In Myanmar, we currently have around 0.3 to 0.4 kg of waste generation per capita/day. This number is very low compared to the neighbouring countries in the Southeast Asia.
As the low-income country, I would say that Myanmar is very well-organized in terms of ensuing the circularity of products. We repair, resell, and keep things as long as possible. However, plastic is mainly single use and has no value, so it’s not collected by waste pickers, and very often finds its way into nature.
It is very interesting to hear that Myanmar has highly active recycling market. Could you tell us more about that?
Recycling in this country is very localised and rudimental. Here, you would find a recycling company in people’s backyard and it is often run without electricity. They cut and wash plastics like High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) by hand. They use feedstocks for whatever they need. A little bit more advanced recyclers use old washing machines. People can demonstrate a high degree of ingenuity when it comes to extracting values from recyclables. During the last 10 to 15 years also more modern recycling plants were set up with a many 100 tons of input per month.
Could you tell us more about the low waste generation in Myanmar? Do people just generally use less plastics?
Yes, the consumption rate is very low. If we look at just plastics, Burmese only use about 10 percent of what Japanese or European people use in average. For other consumable products, people in Myanmar are not so much responsible for the waste generation, they are rather contributing to the solution by “reusing” products purchased on second-hand market. For example, people frequently purchase second-hand bicycles coming from Japan. In this respect, Myanmar can be considered as to be playing a crucial role in the global circular system. Second-hand products are not necessarily negative, they are more affordable.
The second-hand market is quite extensive here, you can find nearly everything. Electronics, bicycles, cars, clothing, the list goes on. People make good use of the full value of any products, do not needlessly throw them away, and repair and reuse for a very long time. Here, we can easily find a repair shop, and the cost for it is low. It is the complete opposite of what happens in advanced economies. For instance, if my refrigerator is broken in the U.S., it would be cheaper to buy a new one than try to fix it.
Paradoxically, poverty is the driver of circularity. The poorer you are, the more circular you are obliged to think and behave with the scarce resources. People cannot afford to needlessly throw things away. If you go to a village difficult to reach from the consumerist world, you can find people living in a more or less closed loop economy. They have nothing coming from outside and conversely nothing is going out. They do not throw things away. We have a lot to learn from people like that, and from countries like Myanmar.
Figure 4: Community waste collection in low-income areas in Yangon.
The collection is source segregated, diverting recyclables and organic waste.
After reading your report ‘Digging Through: An Inside Look at Municipal Waste Management in Myanmar’ we observed that you were focusing on the secondary (urban) cities. Could you let us know the reasons behind that?
Our research projects were mainly conducted in secondary cities, because data was already available from the three bigger cities where there is condensed population, such as Yangon and Mandalay. Once we move out of metropolitan areas, waste related statistics and data on which we can base our study is practically unavailable. Researchers would encounter similar complications if they try to conduct research in islands and villages of Indonesia, for example. So the availability of reliable data was the main reason of choosing secondary cities for the study.
Are the people in Myanmar aware about the plastic pollution issue?
It is a complicated question. In Myanmar, economic and political difficulties dictate people’s livelihood and lifestyle, and I don’t think that people here see the environmental issue as their priority. It is not that they are completely unaware or uncaring, they just see it as their second, third, fourth priority.
Also, it depends a little bit on whether you happen to live in the area where there are good waste management services. Then the awareness level is minimal because the system already works very well. The experience in European countries is a good example. On the contrary, in many parts of Myanmar, awareness alone is not enough, people need to make active efforts. These include bringing their own waste, segregating it, walking around 500 meters from home to the community bin, or paying a lot of money for someone to transport it to the landfill. The more rural it gets, the more difficult it becomes for Individuals to dispose waste in the right way. They first have to create a collection system.
How about the government, is there any waste management regulations in Myanmar?
There is no particular waste management regulation in rural settings, as the waste does not “exist” as a problem. Household waste is considered to be predominantly composed of organic matters and therefore should be treated locally. As for regulations in urban areas, some of them are simply incompatible with the reality of local context. For instance, in Yangon, waste is not allowed to be treated at source. This does not encourage waste segregation and composting, nor does this facilitate informal waste collection and recycling. Here, the regulations are running against possible local solutions and wisdom. I think this is a big issue – regulations are created by the people who do not understand the problem at hand.
In the past, some organisations came up with sophisticated propositions to encourage waste segregation. Once, there was an introduction of source segregation using waste bags coloured differently in Yangon. However, this was not facilitated through segregated collection. They introduced this in 2013 and it had zero impact on the problem. So, understanding how local system works is important when formulating effective local regulations.
Figure 5: Community awareness training in informal settlement in Yangon. Trainings are conducted directly on the roadside and are organized on a ad hoc basis. This mechanism is the foundation of any activities related to plastic in the community.
How about the enforcement, then?
The enforcement is yet another big problem. The government tried to support waste management action plans at the national and city level. However, they do not have a firm understanding of the waste flow, or how funds are circulating to keep the waste collection mechanism afloat. It is complicated. Without unpacking the complexity first, it would be difficult to propose any effective solutions. Also, it is important to add that informal waste collectors are not even recognised by the government. Although they are the only ones who actually solve the problem, they are not offered any support.
What do you think to be the solutions?
We would need more upstream solutions. Upstream here could be in the form of plastic taxation. We need to install polluters pay system, meaning that plastic producers and brands become responsible not only in the form of EPR a but also funding sustainable disposal of the waste in general. Recovering SWM funds from citizens is not an effective measure to build a sustainable system. Making the producer responsible for the entire product lifecycle is more effective.
When you mentioned that the polluters need to pay, we are thinking about the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Does this mechanism exist in Myanmar?
Installing an EPR system will be very complicated in Myanmar because a lot of products are not necessarily locally produced but come from Thailand or China through border trades. Goods are coming in from different points of entry across the border and are not well regulated. There is no strict control, and the government does not have a clear understanding of the local production and import activities in the country.
We need a supra-national mechanism whereby the polluters, either the petroleum sector or plastic producers, are taxed. This mechanism would be effective for Myanmar because we neither have the capacity to regulate our borders nor tax the producers in the right way. Global taxes would increase the chance that the government would take decisive actions and go into banning SUPs locally. This has to go together with local production and consumption as in our case this is the direction to promote sustainability.
Figure 6: Campaign to reduce plastic usage: Customers receive a small incentive when they purchase
products without plastics. This campaign pushes sustainable local production and consumption.