The Re-Plastic Award

I would love to say that it was my idea and that it popped into my head just like that. Unfortunately it is not true, but it is quite all right, since the Plastic Cup is all about recycling anyway. And this story fits that topic perfectly well – it is an idea-recycling story.

I would have been happy to receive and own an item like that; it even crossed my mind that it would nicely fit in my backpack. So the award was doing its job – it attracted attention. I was gaping at it, and then I took a photo.

The source of the inspiration, the original award in a Scottish visitor centre.

Two days later we were cleaning the Lake Tisza near Kisköre. It was a company team building: a type of event we had just recently started doing regularly. The point of those events is that a company sends its workers to Tisza so they can try their hands at the lives of Plastic Pirates. And we try to squeeze the most out of the day. We row, admire the river, dock at contaminated areas, clean up and sort waste, and do whatever else comes up during those activities. Like stepping in the seeds of water caltrop, sometimes capsizing the boat by accident, laughing, suffering, but in the end we are always rewarded with the feeling that we have done something meaningful.

Sometimes we ship out with hundreds of people at once.

That day it was the workers of Coca-Cola Hungary who arrived to us from different parts of the country. Some would surely ask: why does a huge producer of plastic bottles go to clean the Tisza? Those on the other hand who have already seen river-borne waste hills think differently. The situation is so severe, that no NGO, local community or corporation can deal with it alone. Together? That is more likely. I was not present at the briefing in the morning, because the engine of PETényi, the mothership of the plastic fleet, tanked. After two hours of tinkering, suffering and cursing, it eventually started, puffing out blue smoke. PETényi left its winter harbour. On the horizon, at the entrance of the beach of Kisköre, twenty-five or thirty canoes emerged – our vehicles. The team had already received the morning briefing where the lifeguards explained to them what they had to look out for, and the sun glistened on the diligently turning paddles. The engine gave up again, and I was drifting silently towards the team.

PETényi at the beginning of the day, still empty.

The paddlers reached the mothership. Uplifting music sounded from one of the canoes, possibly from a water resistant stereo. Good to know that those machines do not float, they sink immediately. It was the first time that the canoeists, sitting proudly in their yet squeaky clean T-shirts, saw a ship made from plastic waste. PETényi was held up by thousands of plastic bottles, and its burden was more than a tonne. Fortunately, the wind was favourable, and it looked as if I was staying in the middle of the water on purpose. I smiled, waved, and showed them which direction they had to row to reach the contaminated areas. And then I simply drifted away.

Fortunately the company boasted some trained coxswains.

Sicu, the boss of lifeguards tried to revive the engine once more, and after that we requested another one from Erik, the harbour master of Kisköre. We returned to the forefront just on time. The „Coke guys” – as we called them privately – already filled their first bags and wanted to pass their burden to the PETényi. The crews of the canoes lining up at the sides of the mothership hardly resembled the ones I saw only an hour before. The team was sweaty, tired and dirty. Understandable. Most of them had never seen river-borne waste hills.

Face to face with the pollution.

The first encounter is always a great shock, and it elicits different reactions from different people. Some start babbling – OMG, I would have never thought! – others are dumbfounded, disbelief shining from their eyes from behind their sunglasses. That is where PETényi steps in. We take the first bags and in exchange we offer them some encouraging words and hot coffee. It always helps. After a bit of rest, paddlers stock up on empty bags, and go back to the floodplain forest with renewed strength.

A small rest, then back to the forefront.

Sicu had not left the helm for a minute since the morning. I had no chance to claim it back, since more canoes arrived. One of them was loaded particularly meticulously, and seeing the admiration in my eyes, the coxswain of the canoe smiled and said:

We work at the logistics department.

The cargo bay of the PETényi was filling up fast. Such surge is rare even at the Plastic Cup at the Upper Tisza, bags arrive with such speed only at around the curve of Mátészalka or at the finish of the competition. Soon I did not even have the time to distribute coffee; Timi and Barbara, the communication specialists of the company became our baristas.

Rapid river clean-up.

Several hours later, more than a tonne of waste towered on the river bank near the tired, dirty and satisfied “Coke guys”.

VWe had to admit, they did just as good as veteran Plastic Pirates.

After a debriefing meal and speech, we would have loved to give them a prize, a certificate or something, but the company explicitly requested that all such formalities be omitted in the name of zero waste. We obliged, but as they left, I felt something was missing. However, this feeling was quickly wiped out by one of the most ferocious storms that we had ever seen at the Lake Tisza. Next day we sorted the collected waste with the help of volunteers. This is the trademark of the Plastic Cup – we do not throw away the results of our clean-up actions but recycle most of them.

River-borne waste becomes recyclable owing to the work of volunteers.

Admittedly, it demands a lot of time and effort, but we believe it would be pointless otherwise. So I was carrying a bag full of blue bottle caps to the grinder, when I remembered the award I had seen in Scotland. I was thrilled by the idea that we could make something similar. We might not have received such a dandy award, but how about giving one? It was obvious from the start that we had to use river-borne waste preferably from what the team had collected.

Yes, we screw off the caps and yes, we sort them by colour.

The pile of ground blue caps seemed to be cut out for the task.

Piles of plastic bottle caps sorted by colour, after grinding.

I picked up the bag full of pellets, and took it to a plastic recycling plant in Budafok. Sándor Szabó, the manager of Recyclen is one of those entrepreneurs who do not chase us away when we knock on their door with river-borne waste. He melted the pellets into a thick blob with a special machine, and then moulded it into a plastic sheet with a hydraulic press, weighing several tonnes.

The molten blob made from the waste pellets.

So we had the material for the award – a plastic sheet made from river-borne waste. But how can we cut a pretty droplet shape out of it, like the one I saw in Scotland? I tried with a hand-saw but I failed. The material was thicker and harder than wood. An entrepreneur from Budaörs helped us out and cut the required form with a strong laser ray.

József, the laser and the plastic sheet.

He liked the result so much, that he offered to engrave something in it. Miki, a project manager of the Plastic Cup immediately conjured an artwork, and a less powerful laser ray carved the graphics on the surface of the plastic sheet. Now we only needed to find a base for the award.

The surface was engraved with a laser ray.

I liked the Scottish idea with the strong wooden block and the glued copper sheet, but I thought we did not need to make a perfect copy of it, we should rather add some “Tisza feeling” to it. That is how the base became a piece of driftwood. The river had carved its present shape. We gave it a coat of varnish, and put together the different pieces.

Based on a Scottish idea, shaped in Hungarian style, smartly, á la Tisza.

Two months and many team building events later the Coke guys returned to continue cleaning the river. We could not wait for the closing speech. The river-borne waste had waited enough to show off its pretty new shape. We gave them the award already at the beginning. And the team reciprocated. They collected even more waste than before.

The award that is great to receive but even better to give.

Written by: Attila Dávid Molnár, co-founder of the Plastic Cup and captain of the PETényi

Photoes: András Náthon - PhotoWorks, Péter Mészáros, Vanda Molnár, Boglárka Rosta, Orsolya Lévai, Miklós Gyalai-Korpos

PS: Photos of several awards can be seen in the article, and the reason is that we have not left it to chance but decided to make several prototypes. The PETényi was much prettier at the second team building of the Coke guys, and also the engine behaved much better, but that story will be told in a following post.

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Ministry for Innovation and Technology