The Recycled Plastic Movement

The Body Shop’s latest initiative does two things: It helps the environment, and the women who clean it up.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Waste pickers in India are usually the country’s most marginalised people, and they live below the poverty line.

Plastic is not the enemy. That’s The Body Shop’s (TBS’s) controversial stand on single-use plastic.

“Plastic is ubiquitous in everyday life,” says Yang Kean Hye, general manager of The Body Shop Asia-Pacific and Singapore. “We’re reliant on it. It’s impossible to walk away from using plastic altogether. As we speak, new plastic packaging – including The Body Shop’s – is being produced every minute. Also, conscious recycling is not so important to Singaporeans.”

TBS should know: It ended its in-store Drop Your Plastic Here campaign more than a decade ago because of lukewarm responses here.

“Even if we do manage to cut plastic out entirely, it still doesn’t reduce the amount of existing plastic waste there is now.”

So how do we combat the indifference and reliance? “By making it easier for the consumer to be not just green, but also socially aware – without demanding lifestyle changes.

“If we are going to be producing plastic, and consumers are still going to purchase plastic, we want to make sure that our product packaging is made from recycled plastic.

“We have that done, and now, we want to touch on the social aspects to help those in need, and cultivate a consumer base that’s more socially aware,” Yang says.

Which is why TBS’s latest initiative, Community Trade Recycled Plastic, buys used plastic from waste pickers in Bengaluru, India. More than 90 percent of recycling in India is done informally, and the country has 1.5 million waste pickers who collect and sort more than 6,000 tonnes of plastic that would otherwise end up in rivers and oceans, or just pile up.

Most waste pickers in India are Dalits, previously known as “untouchables”. They are discriminated against, have poor living and working conditions, and are even denied health-care services because of their lack of identification.

“It’s weird, because they play a vital role in alleviating the plastic crisis,” says Yang.

Their circumstances have improved slightly in Bengaluru. The waste-picker community of 2,500 is now protected by Hasiru Dala, a non-profit social enterprise that fights for waste-picker rights and creates waste-picking employment opportunities. To support the empowerment of women, TBS requested that at least 50 percent of its team be made up of women, and that all pickers be paid fair prices for their work.

At the wholesale aggregation centre, waste pickers separate the types of plastic. For TBS, they pick out Community Trade (CT) plastic – mostly clear PET water bottles with labels that can be easily or completely removed for the bottles to be more readily accepted at recycling facilities. The material is then tested and certified to high food grade standards by Plastics For Change, an organisation that connects global brands to high-quality recycled-plastic sources.

The British brand is already using the recycled plastic for its 250ml shampoo and conditioner containers, and has promised to purchase 250 tonnes of plastic from the Indian waste pickers by the end of this year. That’s approximately 12.5 million PET bottles recycled. By 2021, 900 tonnes of CT plastic will replace all the brand’s plastic packaging.

“There is empowerment and sincerity in what we’re doing,” says Yang. “We’re saving both the environment and the people protecting it.”

– CT