Recycling when there is no recycling program. Part 1: bottle cutting

I drafted this post last week, but it makes for a nice Peace Corps Earth Day tie in!

As someone who grew up during the evolution of recycling in the U.S., I am conditioned to try to recycle as much as possible. Where we lived in Denver for instance, they made it ridiculously easy with single-stream recycling in a large wheeled container that was picked up every two weeks. Between that and using our compost pile for fruit and vegetable scraps, we usually had very little actual trash.

trash pit

A typical trash pile on our school campus. Seeing the waste of this marula fruit last year prompted me to take action. Aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastics are also either buried or burned in trash fires (these materials don’t burn well!)

As a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer arriving in Rundu, Namibia in September 2013, I had a fast wake up call that developing countries are unable to recycle the vast majority of their trash. The sad thing is that this is a missed opportunity for employment creation and for income-generating opportunities for unskilled workers. There are fluctuations in the market for plastics, glass and paper, but municipal recycling programs are usually sustainable through aluminum can recycling. In the U.S. you can find many otherwise unemployed people collecting cans to sell. One guy even funded a movie just through collecting cans and selling them (but I can’t find a link to that! I gave up after an hour, sorry). Because of the ease of recycling cans, more of my favorite Colorado breweries started producing beer in cans as well. Recycling, especially aluminum, can be profitable.

In the locations (townships) around Rundu, trash pick up is nonexistent, so people dump their trash in open fields and eventually the town comes in with a bulldozer and loads it in a truck destined for the landfill. Early on in my service, I emailed a couple of companies that do recycling in Windhoek and the other larger cities in Namibia to see when a program might be coming to Rundu, but never received a reply (the usual situation when you email someone in Namibia).

I started saving cans and bottles here in our flat, much like a hoarder, because I found it also so wasteful. These materials quickly fill up a trash pit because they don’t burn. When we visited the U.S. last May, I brought back to Namibia a Kinkajou Bottle Cutter.  Basically, the Kinkajou blade makes a score line around the bottle and then cycles of hot and cold water are used to cleanly fracture the glass, so the bottle can then be sanded smooth and used as a glass or a vase, etc.

Nothing is ever as easy as advertised though. In my initial attempts to make small drinking glasses out of empty beer bottles, I was going through at least 10 cycles of hot and cold (even with an ice water bath for the bottles) before I was able to get them to break. This is a lot more time and effort than advertised. I was able to cut a few of these small bottles, but I moved onto other projects a bit disappointed because I was hoping to leave this bottle cutter behind for a Namibian to use to make these products as a business.

bottle cutting success

Thanks to the work of the Kinkajou Bottle Cutter, our South African wine bottle collection is ready to be put to new uses such as a replacement French press container – the large Four Cousins bottle. They call it a coffee plunger here.

Last month I shifted to attempting to cut wine bottles and had much better success! Maybe the larger surface area allows for better fracturing, but with only two or three cycles of hot and cold water, the wine bottles snapped fairly cleanly. I do recommend the product, just not for Namibian beer bottles. I am going to give the cut wine bottles away as gifts to my colleagues at work and feature this item in my business club as a possible income-generating activity. The bottle labels can be removed using warm water and soap. Soaking them for an hour seems to work pretty well for most of the labels.

marula cider glass

An example of a smaller glass made from a juice bottle.

Bottles can also be ‘cut’ using string and nail polish remover although I batted one for three on my attempts using that technique. You don’t need the fancy Kinajou cutter, but it does make it easier. The “cut” wine bottles can be used to display flowers, as storage containers and as pencil and pens cups.

A future post will cover “recycling” of aluminum and steel cans.



Filed under Peace Corps Namibia Blog

5 responses to “Recycling when there is no recycling program. Part 1: bottle cutting

  1. Pingback: Recycling when there is no recycling program. Part 2: aluminum cans | Our Peace Corps Namibia Blog

  2. I actually really like the idea of repurposing bottles like that when there isn’t a recycling program available. I’ve got a small stack of bottles in my kitchen that I’ve been holding onto for a few weeks now. It might be fun to try turning a few of them into cups until I find a good recycling program in my area to take the rest to.

  3. Pingback: Best Memories, Moments and Lessons of Peace Corps. Numbers 10-18 | Our Peace Corps Namibia Blog

  4. May Kandenge

    Hi Josh
    Just last night after work, I cut a few wine bottles using a string and nail polish remover, i haven’t tried bear bottles yet. The cut wasn’t perfect but i ended up with a few drinking glasses after sanding them.
    I am currently working on a bottle recycling project. I am going to buy a bottle cutter though because they make a fine cut.

    May Kandenge
    Ohangwena Region

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