Recycling champions born out of hope and hard work
February 8, 2023
“It was one of the most challenging times of our lives” says Khorolsuren when her husband Namdag suffered a devastating injury several years ago from an accident losing his ability to sit up straight or to even put his shoes on. For many, this could be the end of all hopes for a better future. But not for them.
In fact, this was the beginning of their journey to become recycling champions in Erdenet city, one of the regional city centers of Mongolia, where they have collected and delivered 35 tonnes of recyclable waste within just five months in 2022.
Erdenet is a highly dense city with over 100 thousand residents and many industrial centers. Waste management is a priority for the city and 187 hectares of the city’s land is already used up for a landfill and becoming the main source of city’s air, soil and water pollution. Nearly one thousand cubic meters of solid waste is being added to city’s landfill daily all around the year.
Waste management starting with sorting is still largely a new topic for many Mongolians, yet waste remains one of the key sources of pollution that is impacting people’s health as landfills are the main method of disposing of waste in Mongolia.
“My wife continuously helped me and motivated me during these challenging times” says Namdag as he talks about how the couple did a bit of everything to make a decent living including running a tire repair shop, tire sale shop, and car wash center when they moved to Erdenet in 2012.
Compared to the Ulaanbaatar city, Mongolia’s capital, the economic opportunities in regional cities are very competitive and given Erdenet’s high density, finding a fixed income source is a major challenge for many. Even for households with no members with disabilities. A number of studies show that persons with disabilities and households with at least one member with disability face even steeper challenges of sustaining a decent living in Mongolia.
Soon after arriving in Erdenet, the couple learned about circular economy model on social media where people were creating products from recyclable waste and making a very modest living from it by selling them. With their newly found interest, they used all their sources to find more information, eventually meeting an expert who provided them proper training and knowledge.
Equipped with the new insights and knowledge, Khorolsuren and Namdag started operating their small recyclable collecting shop in 2014 until they learned in 2021 about the waste management system change pilot in Erdenet city supported by UNDP Mongolia’s Accelerator Lab and implemented by the Mongolian Remote Sensing Society NGO.
The pilot is geared to improve the waste management system in Erdenet while also changing the residents’ attitude towards waste. The couple immediately applied to be part of the project and was selected. Through the project, the couple now has a semi-automatic horizontal press and baling machine, bale clamp forklift and a community-owned small truck which increased their capacity several hundred times over. They now not only collect more recyclable waste than ever, but lead the local community in sorting their waste, transporting and selling it to the recycling center in Ulaanbaatar.
The pilot project also created a total of eight new jobs in the Erdenet city alone. Their efforts could potentially reduce Erdenet’s waste volume up by up to 50%. Based on the success of this pilot, ten other provinces in Mongolia expressed their interest to replicate the successful model locally.
“Little by little, people are becoming aware of how waste can be reused and recycled if its properly sorted. People started to sort their household and business waste which makes me motivated and happy to work harder” says Namdag as he looks to the recently pressed recyclables waste block with a proud look on his face.
Nodding in agreement with him, Khorolsuren added “It is very rewarding to know and think how our work, no matter how small, is contributing to the healthy environment and nature.”
You can clearly feel the resilience and inspiration in the air as the couple says, “There are many difficult challenges to overcome in life but if you keep working hard without losing hope, the right path is always in front of you.”
Erdenesukh (Sukhee) Otgonbayar
Communications Analyst, UNDP in Mongolia