Waste not, want not: Indian peacekeepers tackle plastic pollution through innovative upcycling

waste India unmiss recycle reuse plastic climate change peacekeepers south sudan united nations

From vertical gardens to bolstering security of UNMISS personnel, Indian peacekeepers from the UNMISS Petroleum Platoon have found multiple, innovative ways to upcycle used plastic bottles in an effort to protect civilians as well as Planet Earth. Photo by Isaac Billy/UNMISS

1 Apr 2022

Waste not, want not: Indian peacekeepers tackle plastic pollution through innovative upcycling

Priyanka Chowdhury

JUBA - It’s no secret that single-use plastic accounts for some 40 per cent of the world’s plastic production. The problem: Rapid discarding of plastic in all its forms has increased the planet's total waste at an alarming rate every year. 

Those less involved with the Earth’s health (and happiness) may be unmoved, but not the Indian Petroleum Platoon serving for peace with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

To the uninitiated it might seem a tad contradictory for refuellers, whose expertise lies in using non-renewable energy sources, to lead the charge in greening the blue.

But Lieutenant Colonel Shivkumar Iyer, Contingent Commander for this enterprising team of Blue Helmets, is quick to disabuse us from this notion.

“It is true that we work with fossil fuels, but we are trained to use them responsibly, and in a country like South Sudan, where conflict is still ongoing, fuel is necessary for the Mission to carry out life-saving operations,” he explains.

“Plus, the work we do every day reiterates one thing—we must embrace creative reusing of waste materials if we are to build a better future for our children,” he adds. “Since large-scale recycling plants aren’t readily available in this young nation, we decided to upcycle,” he reveals with a smile.

Their first imaginative foray into the world of upcycling: Creating bottle bricks.

These are basically discarded plastic water bottles, which dedicated peacekeepers have retrieved, sanitized, and filled with either dried murram, soil or shredded plastic wrappers.

Once filled, they are easy to stack together onto a metal frame to create a wall. They can even be meshed to create benches, blocks, beams, pillars, floors, and playfields.

“Bottle bricks are exceptionally strong,” says the Lieutenant Colonel. “They’re cheap, easy to maintain and, relatively inexpensive in comparison to brick or concrete.”

The other initiative that these plastic warriors have come up with is noteworthy because it contributes directly to the safety and security of UN personnel. 

They have used discarded plastic bottles filled with soil to fortify collapsible wire mesh containers and heavy-duty fabric liners used as a semi-permanent levee against possible armed attacks.

“The options for finding ways to reduce waste plastic are enormous. Bottles can be used to create vertical gardens for herbs, vegetables, and flowering plants; these can be irrigated using basic hydroponics or drip irrigation, which puts your wastewater to good use as well,” continues Lieutenant Colonel Iyer. “It’s all about giving things that you would, usually, discard, a second chance.”

While these may seem like small steps to tackle a problem with global implications, committed peacekeepers from the mission’s Petroleum Platoon have a simple philosophy: Protecting our planet is as important as protecting civilians.