Fight plastic!

Kazakh activist explains why being "eco-friendly" today is useful and profitable

May 31, 2023

Pakizat Saylaubekova

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan/Alexey Malchenko

On 5 June the world marks the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, established by the UN General Assembly. On this day, millions of people participate in actions and marathons for a green future. This year's campaign slogan is #Fightplasticpollution.

Every year the planet's inhabitants produce more than 400 million tons of plastic. How much is that? Imagine the famous Egyptian pyramids. If all this trash were laid out in the shape of such a pyramid, we would have enough for 67 such structures. At the same time, half of this garbage is disposable plastic, which was used for a very short period of time. Of this mountain of plastic, only a tenth goes to recycling. Where does the rest go? Flying in the air, lying in landfills, forests and steppes, and floating in bodies of water. Up to 23 million tons of plastic are washed into lakes, seas and rivers every year.

We talked to Pakizat Saylaubekova, an environmental activist from Almaty, about plastic pollution in Kazakhstan, the situation with recycling, and what each of us can do today to make our earth cleaner.

Pakizat leads an eco-friendly lifestyle herself and teaches it to others. She is the co-founder of the environmental social movement Recycle BIRGE and author of the podcast Ecology Without Panic. Pakizat actively supports UNDP initiatives in Kazakhstan and contributes to the fight against climate change.

Pakizat Saylaubekova at the recycling station of the Mega mall in Almaty

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan/Alexey Malchenko

- Pakizat, the problem of plastic pollution of nature is very acute for the whole world. Give your opinion as an expert who has been dealing with this issue for a long time – how critical is this problem in Kazakhstan?  

- Let's do the math, because numbers never lie. We know that an average of 5 million tons of household waste is produced annually in Kazakhstan. According to the latest data of the State Statistics, less than 132,000 tons of plastic waste in Kazakhstan was sent for recycling in 2021, which is no more than 21.9 percent of the total amount of plastic waste produced annually in the country. It means that the whole country produces 602,740 tons of plastic waste annually.

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan/Alexey Malchenko

Every day from Almaty alone, more than 1,000 to 1,200 tons of solid waste is removed. On average, the morphological composition of MSW in the city is as follows: food waste – 34 percent; paper and cardboard - 23 percent; polymers (plastic, plastics) - 26 percent ; glass - 8 percent; scrap metal - 3 percent; textiles - 3 percent; hazardous waste - 1 percent; other waste residues - 2 percent. It turns out that the citizens produce 260 tons of plastic waste per day. (I received these data from the Department of Ecology of Almaty through the portal E-otinish).

I would like to point out that the level of consumption is increasing from year to year, and the data for 2023 will definitely be higher. I believe that this is a large-scale phenomenon for Kazakhstan, which puts the environmental problem of garbage pollution in third place in terms of urgency after air and water pollution (lack of drinking water and contamination of aquatic ecosystems). Yes, we all understand that our country is large, but that does not mean that we can endlessly bury garbage in the ground. Everything has its limit.

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan/Alexey Malchenko

- How do you think this problem can be solved? Perhaps some already existing practices have proven to be effective?

- I believe that we need comprehensive measures. Based on the experience of developed and advanced countries, I can definitely say that we need to further develop the industry of solid waste collection and recycling. We need to introduce incentive systems to stimulate waste sorting; for example, we can pay less for sorted waste removal, and we need to introduce a working system of penalties. Unfortunately, but it's a fact – when you pay with money, it's quickly absorbed by citizens.

We also need to support companies that collect recyclable materials. Statistics and practical experience show that such companies, especially those new to the market, find it difficult to make a profit immediately, and it would be great to support them further with the existing EcoQoldau system.

A special place is environmental education of the public at the local government, or akimat level. We need to constantly talk about the rules of sorting, the dangers of waste, the cost of removal and fines through information resources – media, social networks, akimat websites, and others. Environmental education is equally important at the level of the existing system of Apartment Owners' Cooperative and of the new system of Association of Property Owners.

Only when all these measures are in place will it be possible to build incineration plants, precisely for those types of MSW that cannot be recycled.

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan/Alexey Malchenko

- What can each of us do today to reduce the volumes of garbage? 

- I myself always used to think that environmentally friendly products were more expensive a priori, and that being an environmentalist was really expensive. But it turned out that in practice living an eco-friendly lifestyle is also economical.

Let me give you an example of water in a plastic bottle. Many people do not realize that when we buy water in such a bottle we pay about 60 percent of this cost for the packaging of plastic and its further disposal, in addition to all the VAT. And how many of these containers do we consume in the summer? At the same time, buying a steel bottle once, the consumer saves not only his money, but also resources in the form of oil, electricity, packaging, transportation and other related costs that are spent on the production of one plastic bottle.

Speaking of plastic, it is the lightest type of packaging, which has many types, shapes and properties. And of course, it is logical that manufacturers use the cheapest kind for their business, which in turn affects human health.

In addition to this practice, to begin with I advise you to give up plastic bags. On average we use four bags a day, each bag serves us for about 20 minutes, after which it unfortunately becomes unnecessary. My colleague did an experiment: he calculated that his family of five people did not use approximately 1,500 bags in a year. They used eco-bags instead. There are a lot of them now, of different kinds and sizes. Yes, it is not always convenient to carry them with you. But if you accustom yourself to it, it will already be at the level of habit. And even if you forgot them at home, nobody forbids you to use ordinary plastic bags, you can always give them for recycling.

Photo: UNDP Kazakhstan/Alexey Malchenko

- You are a shining example of how training and implementing social projects can have a positive impact on public consciousness. How do you assess the role of women in environmental activism in Kazakhstan?

- Working with young people and volunteers, I can definitely say that in ecoactivism 90 percent are women and girls. For example, our public foundation was created by four girls. Even the statistics of our social networks show that 92 percent of our subscribers are women.

I very much appreciate the work of women in ecoactivism. And I have many examples of those who came to ecoactivism caring for future generations. I think this quality is inherent in our very nature. It is the majority of women who create public unions, foundations and associations that fight against environmental problems.

At the same time, I am impressed by the fact that eco-activists not only point out problems, but also offer solutions. They study, implement various environmental projects and become public figures. 

- In recent years, World Environment Day is actively celebrated in Kazakhstan. What are your plans for this day? 

- On the eve of World Environment Day and Ecologist's Day, on June 4, my big team and I want to hold an environmental event, entitled “Eco Stories”,  at the Almaty Pop Up Store. We will accept recyclable materials for recycling, we will accept clothes for reuse. Along with that, I plan to take part in an event organized by a supermarket chain for their customers: we will talk about the rules of waste sorting and conduct a training workshop.