As we roamed through the “ger district” in Yaarmag, I noticed the unusual cleanliness of the area, compared to other similar districts we know near Ulaanbaatar. The usual scenes of vodka bottles, cigarette butts, soiled diapers, plastic bottles and aluminum cans are nowhere to be seen here.
The sprawling residential area consists of parcels of land with one or more detached houses or gers — Mongolian traditional dwelling known as yurts in some countries, surrounded by two-metre high wooden fences.
“We might have cleaned the streets off as we pick the plastic bottles up for our projects,” laughs 56-year-old Ulziisaikhan as she welcomes us outside her home.
Ulzii and other women living nearby support themselves by making brooms and household furniture such as chairs and sofas from plastic litter that they collect in the streets.
“When you are young and able, being unemployed is not the end of the world. You know that you will figure it out somehow. But when you are in your 50s and unemployed, that is pretty much it. No one will want to hire you at this age,” Ulzii says.
As we enter the small ger, we find a group of four women including Ulzii, absorbed in their work. This ger serves as their production plant. Plastic bottles, their main supplies, are stacked up on the left side of the ger. Bottles are washed here and labels are removed to make the raw materials for the sofas and chairs. Ulzii and her friends try to collect the plastic bottles in the streets themselves, but nowadays people also bring them the supplies, charging a fair price.
Of the 1.5 million tonnes of garbage that is produced annually in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, only 24 percent is recycled. The number is even smaller when it comes to recycling the 69,000 tonnes of the plastic garbage the city produces annually.
Up until January of 2018, the city used to ship 20,000 tonnes of plastics to China for recycling every year. But this is banned now from China’s side as part of their new regulation. Without a proper recycling facility and a landfill, Mongolia is unsure where to keep the plastic recyclables or what to do with them.
Social entrepreneurs like Ulzii and her friends aren’t waiting around for an official plan. They participated in a training offered by UNDP Mongolia back in 2014 that aimed to improve the livelihoods of rural Mongolians who migrated to the city after losing their livestock in the countryside due to a particularly harsh winter.
“With the support from the UNDP Innovation Facility, we wanted to give them the opportunity to create jobs whilst addressing a common environmental issue in Mongolia — littering,” explains Galaariidii Galindev, coordinator of the “Turning Garbage into Gold” project.
Ulzii and her friends received a start-up kit with basic equipment to set up their businesses. In addition to the in-class training that included workshops on writing a project proposal and designing a business model, the group also received mattresses, linings and other necessary supplies and tools for an immediate start of production.
Over the course of several months, the UNDP Mongolia team followed up with the entrepreneurs to assess the impact and sustainability of their activities, and to help them improve with a view towards becoming independent. Ulzii and her team succeeded and now receive frequent orders, including a recent order of 24 chairs and a conference table from one of Mongolia’s major companies. Trained to create simple designs initially, the hardworking women have since begun developing new designs based on their imaginations and the clients’ demand.
They not only built a business for themselves but also helped set up another group in the neighbourhood made up entirely of people with disabilities.
“Involving people with disabilities is a great example of social inclusion and we did not expect this much of social responsibility coming from a tiny project unit,” Galaariidii says.
In Mongolia, 80 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed. Often marginalized, they face strong stigma from potential employers. Although there is a legal provision encouraging companies to hire people with disabilities, most companies choose to pay a monetary fine.
The broader picture
UNDP Mongolia has been actively promoting the reduce, reuse, recycle principle for years. Ulzii’s story is one of our earliest examples in the global fight against plastic pollution, but the determination has revived this year with our latest campaign #NoPlasticChallenge, which started in March.
Throughout the campaign, some 25 organizations including the US Embassy, local start-ups, banks and coffee shop chains joined the challenge to raise awareness about our excessive use of plastics and the means for reducing it. Hundreds of thousands of Mongolians were engaged online through social media campaigns.
Inspired by the online success, the organizations conducted an eco-bag workshop and trainings on ways to reduce single-use plastics. Coffee shops introduced discounts for customers who brought their own mugs, and we’re already seeing an increase in the number of people who carry reusable grocery bags to their local shops.
Mongolia seems to realize that reducing and reusing are the only ways to beat plastic pollution in the absence of recycling for the time being.