On the face of it, this quiet Mabela neighbourhood is like any other in Muscat's suburbia. The same nondescript buildings, alternating an unchanging dull brown and white, run up and down the same sun-beaten, faceless streets that line the city's localities. Still, something just feels out of place in this everyplace.
And then, it hits you. There's not a fluttering shopping bag nor a free-wheeling soda can to be spied. “This must be the cleanest street in Muscat,” jokes Nasser al Kindi, eliciting peals of laughter from his friends. A sudden rustle silences the group. Like so much tumbleweed, a stray plastic bag has rolled across Nasser's courtyard.
Martin Mbuta leaps into action, nabbing the offending article and drawing approving looks from the gathering. Martin then takes his prize catch to the curious-looking contraption in the corner of the yard. He deposits it into the machine's gaping maw with a triumphal air.
“This is it. This is the Plasbin,” Martin says, of the giant receptacle that he hopes will be Oman's ace in the hole in its fight against plastic waste. Standing 8ft tall and weighing an estimated 200kg when empty, the Plasbin is a stylish amalgamation of steel frame married to plastic shell.
A distinctive castle rampart gives the Plasbin its unmistakably Omani identity. Created by painstakingly gluing – by hand – many thousands of shredded plastic bits to the steel core, the care and sweat that went into it is plain to see in its pointillist design.
For Nasser, Martin and their partners in the nascent Ibn Sarhan United Projects LLC (iSUP), Rashid and Sarhan al Habsi, it's a labour of love one and a half years in the making. For the foursome, it's much more than a recycling bin. It's the fruition of an idea. An idea that took wing in the skies and whose time, they hope, has come in Oman.
“We have been around the world and have seen how people in other countries are working to protect their environment. And we wanted to bring some of that back to Oman,” says Rashid, a flight attendant. “I’ve seen some countries around the world that have this already. They might not have the same design ideas, but it’s the same concept.”
“This is a small business run by young Omanis who are trying to make a difference for their country,” Martin says. “Over the years, there have been so many efforts to recycle plastic. Plastics don’t biodegrade. The lifetime of complex plastics is over 1,000 years,” he continues. “All over the world, people have been told not to use plastic. And the more they have been told that, the more plastic they have used. Plastic is unavoidable; it’s everywhere – bottles, bags, chairs, you name it. There’s no getting around that.
“The only way to fight plastic waste is to find a way to collect it, crush it and not allow it to go into the environment via landfills. To instead turn it into something useful is the only way I see this problem being solved,” he adds.
It's a message that looks to have piqued interest in the right quarters. Some of Muscat's malls, on the frontlines of the battle, have opened their doors to the budding entrepreneurs.
“We have gotten approval to install the Plasbin on a trial basis in Muscat Grand Mall and the Markaz al Bahja mall,” says Nasser.
“We're also looking at the supermarkets and beyond Muscat – Salalah, Sur, Nizwa. Wherever we have a chance, we will put them.”
“I believe that when we put this into the malls, people will come and see and ask questions. I think they will find their answers in the bin,” he adds. That's a safe assumption given the level of interest the Plasbin has generated in his neighbourhood alone. Already, a gaggle of children is in rapt attention.
“People, especially children, who see us working have come inside and asked us about the bin. When we explain, they ask how we came up with this idea and when we ask them for their point of view, everyone says it’s an idea that needs to be promoted,” says Nasser.
For environmentally-savvy Nasser, the Plasbin takes on a greater meaning. Six years ago, the flight supervisor had opened up a small store that dealt in solar energy appliances – panels, water heaters and the like – for the home. It didn't take. Now, a motley collection of these gadgets line his courtyard – a constant reminder of the urgency of getting the eco-message across.
“It’s an education for our country. Young people just litter anywhere,” he adds. “Yes, taking schoolchildren to clean up beaches and holding discussions at schools is part of educating the people about respecting and caring for their environment, but the Plasbin will make them think and realise that what they are throwing outside need not be wasted. It will show people, both the current generation and the new, that waste can be put to use.”
Sarhan agrees. “Children are interested to know what the Plasbins are made of. When they come to know that the plastic in their bottles can be used in ways like this, they can teach themselves,” he says. “When they see the Plasbins, they’ll think about these things.”
“This unit is designed to inspire young Omanis to come up with creative ideas to recycle plastic. It’s a piece of art that will ideally encourage people to think beyond the normal ‘don’t use plastic’ warnings,” Martin says. “That, even if you buy plastic products, it’s not a problem if you only think about reusing them. It’s a platform for them to start thinking.”
Ultimately, the group hopes to bring the Plasbin – and with it, that raised degree of engagement – to every neighbourhood in every corner of Oman. For that to happen, they need sustained, long-term commitments from backers, especially from the big corporates.
“We pooled together to create the starting capital. The rest will have to come from the private sector,” Martin says.
“Whatever we’ve earned from our jobs, we put into this,” Nasser adds. “Right now we are small, but we believe we will be big in the future. The Plasbin needs food and love – just like us. It needs plastic and support to grow. We hope people will feed both to our bins.”