PET output in Hungary in numbers:

Annual output: 1.8 billion bottles/year, cca: 50,000 tonnes
Annual collection: 12,000 tonnes
Recycling: 30–35% of the annual collection
PET material ending up on dumpsites: 38 thousand tonnes

1. The Good Old Days

The car-park behind the Fehérvári Road market once held one of the treasures of Communist Hungary, a little ugly metal booth where drunks and homeless people hung around, and which echoed to the boisterous clink of bottles and the rattle of crates, from early morning till late at night. In the mid-1980s, when I first came to Hungary, there was a price tag on almost all bottles, and people dutifully collected them and regularly brought them back to collecting points like this, all over the country. And if a strange- shaped bottle turned up which even the giant-bosomed lady behind the counter did not like the look of, some foreign peanut butter jar or weird former whisky container, the drunks were sure to pounce politely on it, convinced they could find some buyer for it somewhere. In neighbouring Romania, even PET bottles were seen as miraculous when they first appeared. I remember two young hitchhikers near Braşov pleading for my empty mineral water bottle, and insisting I take several new pairs of socks from the factory where they worked in exchange. A vast industry thrived on washing and returning beer, wine, and champagne bottles to circulation. The Communist states seemed light-years ahead of the wasteful west in the green revolution.

Then one by one, the big lady turned down my offerings. Certain kinds of wine-bottles were the first to earn her displeasure.The drunks took them with glee – the anti-recycling revolution began unevenly, and they alone knew where the bigger-hearted depots were to be found. Soon afterwards, all wine bottles were spurned, so we started drinking beer. Then the ugly booth disappeared altogether, and a shopping mall was built in its place.

There were a few years when freedom meant the freedom to throw away everything. Then bottle-banks appeared where you smashed your bottles on top of each other from a great height, annoying the neighbours, but always suspected that the broken shards found their way into land-fill sites anyway. Then came a time when no respectable teenager could bear to be seen without a half litre, or better still a two litre PET bottle in her or his hand, and when the surface of the Tisza and Danube rivers disappeared beneath a tide of plastic. Noting the Hungarian love of rubbish, the Austrians even tried to build an incinerator for all theirs, just upwind of the pretty western Hungarian town of Szentgotthárd – only a rear-guard action by the first Fidesz government, and the timely intervention of Brussels saved the town.

2. A New Era

Tom Szaky was born in Budapest in 1982, and left with his family for the United States when he was just four – around the time I got my first forty-five forint pay cheque in  Fehérvári Road. Infected by the American entrepreneurial spirit at an early age, he quit Princeton University when his worm-shit project in the university canteen took off. Horrified by the waste at lunch time, he started breeding worms in it, and selling their produce as high-value compost. By 2010, Tom had become one of the richest men in his chosen land, with a fortune built on recycling, or “upcycling” as he prefers to call it, waste which everyone else turned their nose up at. His latest scheme is to recycle cigarette butts. He persuades tobacco companies to pay for volunteer “brigades” to collect fag-ends and send them in to his warehouses. The collectors name a charity or foundation of their choice, to which the money goes to. His Terracycle company now does business in forty countries. His business model is very simple – volunteer brigades of people form to focus on one particular kind of waste. The producer of the waste is approached to fund the waste-collection, in exchange for good publicity, and even Terracycle makes a profit – a big profit.

“Everybody wins!” Tom told me, when we met in a restaurant with a pirate theme in Budapest in September this year, when he finally made it back to the country of his birth.

“Although of course the best way forward would be not to consume so much in the first place.” Another project he is working on is edible packaging. The issue then is to make it taste neutral, he explains, and washable.

Terracycle’s first Hungarian project is to collect sweet wrappers – funded by the chocolatemaker Milka, and its parent company Kraftfoods. Not just Milka wrappers, but all sweet and chocolate wrapping can be sent in. Schools, kindergartens, orphanages, companies and even banks are already taking part. Daniel German, Terracycle’s Hungarian manager, says 13,000 people are already involved. Every six months, the collectors are paid for all the wrappers they have sent in. As the company only started operations in Hungary in the spring, the first “pay-day” will be in December. Once again, the money goes not to thecollectors personally, but to a charity or foundation of their choice. A school, for example, can ask for the money to be paid to the school foundation, as a contribution towards new sports or music equipment. Terracycle pays two forints per wrapper, and accepts shipments of a minimum of two hundred at a time. One summer kindergarten alone collected five thousand. Six to seven thousand wrappers arrived a day at their depot in Budapest’s tenth district during the summer, while six thousand arrived in just the first two weeks of September, after the schools went back.

“We’re talking to fifty brands at the moment, and with about ten we are making progress”, says Daniel German. “Terracycle must not be a marketing trick.”

The company is also working with Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, to help a group of students who have set out to make it Hungary’s first “zero- waste” university. Lajos Simon comes from another generation of Hungarian recycling engineers, but has been almost equally successful, in his own way. His new factory and offices at Mátéháza, near the city of Dunaújváros, near the Danube south of Budapest, opened exactly a year ago. Unlike Terracycle, Budafilter’94 specialises in recycling PET bottles. Other companies in the business in Hungary turn the bottles to PET flakes, then send them abroad, usually to Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Poland, to be turned into new items. Lajos Simon’s family firm completes the whole process on site. First the bottles are compressed to just a fraction of their normal size, in simple devices which are sold to households, schools and other institutions. The company produces its own sacks for collection, nationwide. If the empty bottles are just put in as they are, each sack takes sixty bottles. If they are crushed under foot, a hundred. Using Lajos Simon’s thermo compression machines, four hundred fit into each sack. If you recycle 5,000 bottles, you get back your investment of 12,500 forints to buy the machine. The compressed bottles are then collected by the Hungarian post office, under contract. Simon makes a profit of 0.8 forints on each bottle.

“There are 3,200 post offices in Hungary, with 35,000 employees in total”, says Simon. “50,000 tonnes of PET bottles are produced in Hungary a year, of which only twenty per cent are recycled at the moment. That means that 30,000 tonnes go into bins.” The Hungarian recycling rate is far worse than that of Germany or the Scandinavian countries, but on a par with France where 800,000 tonnes of PET bottles are produced a year, and a similarly low percentage recycled.

The Mátéháza site where Lajos Simon set up his business is a former Soviet rocket base – ideally suited for his work, he laughs. One of his first products from recycled PET was mechanical filters for deep underwater wells. It is a bright blue item, bigger than a man’s fist, which has been sold successfully for many years running in the Gulf states.

At the end of its first year of operation, the factory is recycling 1,200 tonnes of PET a year, most of which is turned into strong plastic ribbon for wrapping and windows. The plan for next year is to get up to 2,500 tonnes, which will still only be five per cent of the Hungarian total, but if the factory finds sufficient investment, that could even grow to 10,000 tonnes a year – twenty per cent of Hungary’s PET. Lajos Simon proudly shows me round the state-of-the art factory. He prefers to recycle bottles himself rather than buy in PET flakes from other suppliers, because his own technology is better than anyone else’s, he says. A big problem with all plastic recycling is separating the paper and other plastics from the valuable PET.

“One practical problem is to separate the PVC, which has a lower melting temperature, 180 degrees compared to 285 degrees Celsius for PET – so if it is left in the mix it forms ungainly black carbon lumps which spoil the recycled material.” His company pays two forints per compressed bottle. The sacks containing the precious cargo are stacked high outside the factory gates. One machine turns the bottles to flakes, another cleans out impurities. Further down the conveyor belt, another melts them together. Even the heating in winter, and the air-conditioning in summer in the factory is recycled, in its way. Water is pumped hundreds of metres down into the earth, to heat it to 14 degrees Celsius by the time it returns to the surface – and only needs to be heated by conventional methods to twenty- two degrees for the radiators in winter. In summer, the same process cools water to 14 degrees, before it is further cooled for the air-conditioners.

When the famous Hungarian soccer team Ferencváros wanted to show off their new brown away strip recently, they came to Lajos Simon’s factory. The nylon shirts are made from – recycled PET bottles.

Next year, a new law on recycling will come into force in Hungary, which puts the onus on local councils to collect waste. Thanks to Lajos Simon’s use of the post office, to gather his precious bottles, that fits his business plan very well. It also suits the Hungarian postal service – forced by de-regulation to develop more and more non-traditional postal services. A longer term plan to introduce a German- style money back on each PET bottle also suits him down to the ground. Once the shops have collected the bottles, they have to have somewhere to send them, and his factory, he says, is ahead of the game. Twenty years after it stopped recycling bottles, Hungary is wobbling back onto the recycling road.

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