Photo: Nino Zedginidze/UNDP

Rustavi is on its way to becoming the first city in Georgia to operate a full process for recycling plastic waste. Working in partnership with local authorities and experts, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) helped the city to identify missing links, starting from citizen’s attitudes and ending with collection systems, and build a locally based process to reuse some of the 4,221 tons of plastic waste that reach the local dump each year.

Georgia’s only recycling facility, Sanitary, is located in Rustavi municipality. So is another private company, Caucaspack, that uses plastic waste to produce plastic food containers. However, the container factory currently sources only a tiny fraction of its raw material from locally generated waste. The rest is imported into Georgia, despite the seeming abundance of local plastic waste.

Drawing on its partners in innovation – the ServiceLab run by the Public Service Development Agency, the Rustavi Innovation Hub and the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team – UNDP set out to try to close this loop.

One challenge was understanding the seeming lack of interest in recycling in the local community. UNDP applied a behavioural approach, mapping the attitudes of everyone concerned – representatives from government, the private sector, schools and kindergartens and local residents – to identify gaps in knowledge and perceptions.

The two most responsive and knowledgeable groups turned out to be the elderly and the young – in other words, generations of grandparents and grandchildren. This finding led UNDP to focus on local schools and kindergartens as the logical partners to undertake a social experiment in promoting the collection of plastic bottles for recycling.

In close cooperation with the Rustavi City Hall, UNDP installed bright yellow recycling bins in all 47 schools and kindergartens in the city. Collection started in October 2019. In just the first week of the initiative, with only modest encouragement from municipal officials and the school administration, schoolchildren, family members and teachers filled up the bins installed in schools and kindergartens with nearly 200 kilograms of plastic waste.

Drawing on behavioural science, UNDP is now monitoring the process closely to see how best to maintain this initial enthusiasm and what incentive scheme will work best to motivate schoolchildren and their families to continue collecting plastic waste. A stocktaking at year-end will determine whether a promotional campaign is needed.

With a collection solution in place, UNDP helped the city forge a process for recycling the collected bottles. The Sanitary recycling company agreed to collect the waste bottles from all the schools for free, as part of its corporate social responsibility policy. A third company, Clean World, pitched in by agreeing to sort the collected waste before transferring it to Caucaspack. And Caucaspack signed on to use the plastic waste as raw material for production.

There are still some questions to be answered. Corporate social responsibility rather than profit has so far been the appeal for the companies participating in the experiment; they will be studying their numbers carefully to see if there is an economic benefit to their continued engagement. The schools are also mulling what rewards might be needed to maintain the enthusiasm of students and their parents for bottle collection. The innovation-friendly Rustavi municipal authorities plan to take over the process from UNDP in 2020 and are also monitoring closely.

So far, so good, however. The Rustavi experiment has already shown how innovative partnerships can be forged to address social challenges. As the results emerge over the coming months, UNDP will be sharing lessons learned with other municipalities, in the hope of reducing plastic waste and promoting recycling all across Georgia.   

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