Perhaps nowhere are the dangers and opportunities of trash as clear as in the back alleys of Yangon and the Ayeyarwady River, where the rampant practice of open dumping and the problematic waste management in Myanmar are on daily display.
By overthrowing the traditional linear model of truck and tip to landfill, Yangon-based waste management startup RecyGlo took the call in 2017 through keeping trash out of landfills – a bid to pivot to a new recycling direction that has minimal impact on the environment and maximal impact to the economy.
Less Waste, More Money
From waste audits and collection to awareness training to analysis reports, RecyGlo aims to create a closed, circular-economy waste-management system that doesn’t involve sending the trash to landfills or incineration. With a recycling rate of around 98 percent, it has developed a waste management and analytics platform that will leverage blockchain technology to trace the garbage and AI to collect and predict data in the future .
By maximizing the amount of waste being diverted from landfills, the firm has earned contracts across the country with the likes of international nonprofit organizations and small and medium-sized enterprises, while its green footprint is set to expand in the coming months to Indonesia, Cambodia and Singapore.
RecyGlo’s key account and project manager Jaume Marquès Colom said the firm picked Cambodia because it has similar culture and waste problems to Myanmar, while Indonesia, as the first Asian country to sell green bonds, shows great potential to the firm. But he said Singapore’s recycling services are “not there yet” despite the island state being the best place in the region to do business, with rapid urbanization.
Last February, RecyGlo received $150,000 from the Norway-based Katapult Ocean Accelerator program. On January 21, RecyGlo planned to raise a $1 million in operational revenue in singapore. So far, the startup has planned $350,000 in bridge funding without disclosing details on the investors and will close the final round at the end of March.
When asked how the new funding will scale up the development, Marquès said the firm will push it for product development to improve their services and platforms.
Ineffective Waste Management System
With a population of 54 million and rising, Myanmar faces a massive waste management crisis. A World Bank report released last May pointed out that the current open-dumping practice and insufficient collection coverage and cleanliness have meant far-reaching effects for citizens.
Yangon generates 2,300-2,500 tons of household waste per day – meaning that each resident produces 0.5 kilograms of waste every day – plus 150 tons of industrial waste and 2.4 tons of medical waste a day. Some 1,500 tons of waste is delivered to Hteinpin via garbage trucks every day.
“There are key environmental and operational issues as follows: Landfills that are almost at their full capacity, waste dumping without any compaction, surface and groundwater contamination, methane production, release of greenhouse gas and potential landfill fires,” said the World Bank report.
There is no time to waste – “In 2016–2017, Yangon city dump sites received 855,000 tons of solid waste, a 20 percent increase from the previous year,” said the report. Only 49 percent of Yangon’s waste is collected versus 80 percent in Mandalay and 64 percent in Taunggyi; the rest usually ends up around the city and in water streams, the report added.
At Yangon’s largest landfill site, Hteinpin, landfill fires are a common occurrence. But it wasn’t until fires burned in the dump for two weeks in 2018 that the average citizen had a wakeup call to how ineffective and unsustainable the country’s waste management system actually was.
Marquès regards those fires as one of the “trigger points” for citizens to become aware of the amount of waste in the landfill and the reason for the burning. “This topic started to gain momentum, together with the global push to more environmentally friendly and sustainable practices,” he said.
Clean Yangon, a nonprofit that organizes volunteers to pick up litter around the city to make it a cleaner and greener place, was born at the same time as RecyGlo’s founding. Zeyar Tun, head of Clean Yangon, told Myanmar Business Today that more and more young people have joined the cleanup effort.
“Most of the young people who join Clean Yangon in cleaning the trash have one thing in mind: To do their part to contribute to the city and community. Such a mindset needs to be spread among people.” he said.
He believes that it is a good sign to see NGOs and private companies put efforts on waste management. “This also gives us motivation to keep on doing what we are doing.”
Decentralized Waste Management App
Last December, RecyGlo became the first Myanmar company to win one of the world’s largest startup competitions, Seedstars Asia Competition 2019, after joining the contest for three consecutive years.
“Luckily, there are more awareness about the environment and its impact, and investors are more and more willing to push environmentally-conscious and sustainable companies.” Marquès said. “Perhaps that’s why we have more chances to win [startup competitions], because we’re trying to solve a global issue in a developing country.”
Oh My Trash, an app that enables people from all walks of life to sell their valuable waste to the junk shop and to waste management facilities in Myanmar, represents one of the firm’s latest efforts to enlarge community participation in recycling.
Marquès added, “We aim to find local solutions and reuse the valuable recycled products locally, so we partner with local waste management facilities that work in the Myanmar market.”
He emphasized, “The processed materials are turned into valuable goods back to the market.” Aluminum cans, for instance, are 100 percent recyclable. “The recyclable waste is already segregated by the companies that take our service, so waste management facilities have it easier to process the recyclable waste. New products upcycled are books, cans, glass bottles, recycled plastic products, or soil and fertilizer from organic waste.”
RecyGlo stands out by seeking to solve an obvious problem. The biggest challenge it faces, however, has little to do with the tsunami of waste – it’s the dumpers, people who lack awareness about recycling.
While Marquès said the firm is still searching for recycling alternatives in a bid to achieve its zero-waste goal, he and Zeyar Tun from Clean Yangon both urge education as a start.
“It should start with the children: Teach the children and reform the adults. How should we reform the adults? Through awareness raising campaigns, or pleading with them or through law? We are looking for the best solution and have yet to find one.”
Zeyar added, “The law alone cannot eliminate such practices as the irresponsible dumping of trash. It will only be a short-term solution unless individuals have the deeply-rooted good mindset that throwing trash irresponsibly is a bad thing and unacceptable.”
The World Bank report recommends that the government deploy a roadmap for the development and implementation of a plastic action plan in order to reach the target of 100 percent waste collection coverage.
“Establishing an ambient air quality monitoring network and enforcement of emission guidelines would support the monitoring and control/enforcement of air pollution as a first step in air quality management,” the report said.
As Southeast Asia’s urban population is set to rise to 400 million by 2030, waste management needs to keep pace with the surge in trash production. It will soon become one of the hottest sectors in Southeast Asia’s burgeoning recycling business.
Becoming a regional player by 2022 and impacting the lives of 100 million people are also targets that RecyGlo will strive for.