PEM-PLASTIKIt all started out as a pair of conscientious business people trying to find a way to mitigate their own impact on the ecosystem. Now it’s gone far beyond that. The newly announced Pem Plastik programme is a sector-straddling effort to broaden the base for plastic recycling in Vanuatu.

At the official launch event held at Chiefs’ Nakamal on Thursday, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai underlined the importance of participation from everyone concerned. The Pem Plastik programme is operating in alignment with the imminent ban on certain plastic products, including straws and single-use bags. Co-funded By Azure Pure Water and DFAT, and implemented as a partnership between Azure and World Vision, the programme is open to everyone who wants to dispose of certain classes of plastic products responsibly.

Azure’s interest in the issue is obvious, given that much of their water is sold in plastic receptacles. But the commitment runs deeper. Nobody forced Shaun Gilchrist and Yael Sakker, the husband and wife team who own the company, to do anything about the issue of plastic pollution. Nobody sent them to Australia to research recycling technology, or to import the equipment, demonstrate and publicise it at their own expense, or for that matter to seek out partners to expand their recycling efforts beyond their own product.

But that’s what they did. And they’re not done yet.

Azure already has a ‘give me 5’ programme under way, which pays a small rebate to people who bring their used Vanuatu Natural Water bottles to their collection centres. The plastic bottles are prepped and sorted, then recycled using small-scale, high capacity machinery.

Now, Azure has teamed with World Vision to expand their reach. People can make a bit of money bringing in any qualifying plastic for recycling, no matter who made it or sold it. Azure will still pay VT 5 for its own products, and will now pay VT 1 for anyone else’s, provided it’s the right kind of plastic.

Other companies are encouraged to help turn this into a community-wide endeavour. If they commit to paying a similar rebate to the one Azure offers, Pem Plastik will pick up the VT 5 rebate cost for the first three months of participation.

This grace period should allow participants to jump in immediately, and then gradually incorporate the cost into their day to day operations.

The total private sector investment is VT 9 million to date, and Australia’s DFAT has chipped in a similar amount to assist with the community-related components. This aspect of the project will be administered by World Vision.

The programme makes it possible for community members to responsibly dispose of three common types of plastic. They’re identified in the industry as resin codes.

Category 1 plastics—the first of three kinds to be covered by Pem Plastik—is polyethylene, or PET. This is the kind of clear plastic typically used for beverages and some kinds of packaging. Vanuatu Natural Water bottles fall into this category.

The second kind of recyclable plastic is high density polyethylene, a soft plastic known as HDPE, or Category 2.

It’s commonly seen in cleaning products, liquid soaps and shampoo, as well as countless other liquids. In a nutshell, if it holds liquid, it’s squeezable and it’s one colour, it’s probably okay.

The last type of plastic is polypropylene, a semi-rigid, translucent or opaque plastic used to make Tupperware containers. Known as PP or Category 5 resin, you’ll most often see this kind of packaging when you buy Switi ice cream or in your own kitchen in the re-sealable containers you use to refrigerate or store your food.

If you’re not sure whether some plastic you have can be recycled by the Pem Plastik programme, inspect the container carefully, looking for a small triangle surrounded by a number.

Once the plastic is handed in to Pem Plastik, the materials are cleaned and sorted, then fed into a machine that can either shred the material into small chips, or it can melt and extrude the plastic for use in a number of products—everything from unique handicrafts to the raw material for 3D printers.

The aim of the project is to spur new jobs and opportunities arising from a now-steady supply of these raw materials.

Azure’s Shaun Gilchrist emphasises that Pem Plastik is a non-profit endeavour. Speaking earlier this week to the Daily Post, he explained that the project itself is designed to work on a cost-recovery basis. If all goes according to plan, it will only profit enough to sustain itself and to expand its reach.

This is a region-leading initiative, part of a broader push by Vanuatu to put its money where its mouth is where environmental issues are concerned.

The tiny Pacific nation is among the first to institute widespread bans on certain plastic products and to take seriously the impacts of modern society on its natural landscape.