As our planet continues to battle the implications of climate change, developing countries like Pakistan wonder whether recycling is actually a viable option. In other words, is recycling worth the investment?

It’s a Saturday, and having completed her homework for the weekend, 10-year old ZymalUmer—dubbed Pakistan’s “youngest social entrepreneur”—sits at her study table and turns old newspapers into bright and beautifully decorated gift bags, which she will then sell to family and friends. In the span of just three years, her enterprise, Zeebags, has gone from selling a few bags to selling hundreds—totaling five thousand dollars in sales. Zeebags is Zymal’s bid to try to cut down Pakistan’s whopping pollution level of over 20 million tons of emissions every year and increase awareness about the environment. However, Zymal is not the pioneer of the idea of launching an enterprise solely using recyclables.

Although the idea is relatively new in Pakistan and the developing world, recycling as an industry is taking many different forms in the West today, currently employing about 1.25 million workers in the United States alone. From hiking gear to children’s toys, businesses are manufacturing items crafted completely from recycled materials, like discarded fabric and plastic water bottles; in fact, Americans recycle over 67 million tons of their trash.  Manufacturers and retailers in these countries employ these recyclables and can create stunning, if not luxurious, products for consumers. Together, these companies are reducing waste, lowering carbon emissions and keeping more plastic out of the oceans.

Additionally, for a country that is struggling with an energy crisis, recycling can be Pakistan’s beacon of hope as it helps conserve energy. Recycling aluminum cans eliminates 95 percent of the energy needed to make new cans from raw materials.

Similarly, recycling paper avoids approximately 60 percent, while recycling plastic and glass reduces the amount of energy by about one-third compared to making those products from virgin materials. In fact, the energy conserved by recycling one glass bottle would operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours. Thus, by recycling, Pakistan will not only be able to add a whole new industry to its economy, but also save the current burden on its resources and energy usage by existing industries.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is not fully exploiting this avenue as recycling remains an informal industry in Pakistan, where most of the recycled items are sold to local garbage-pickers—raddiwala or pheriwalas. Local scrap dealers buy all of these recyclables from these garbage-pickers, sort and clean them, and finally sell them to middlemen, contractors, or factories.

However, because households in Pakistan rarely separate their waste between recyclable and non-recyclable materials, otherwise recyclable materials such as paper and plastic become contaminated with bacteria from organic waste, reducing their quality and usefulness to manufacturers, and, thus, reducing the value of the industry to the economy.

Many environmentalists—not only in Pakistan, but all around the world—aim to achieve ‘sustainable materials management’, a systemic approach to using and reusing materials over the entire life cycle of these recyclables. This approach envisions a world in which the economy is entirely circular. However, it is essential to introduce the concept of ‘clean waste’ in order to reach this goal. In order to solve this issue of contamination of recyclables in the trash, Pakistan needs to encourage its households to segregate their trash into different categories. Evidently, Pakistan needs strong social sanctions against mixing waste. One way to achieve this is to have the country’s education system incorporate waste segregation as a social practice from a young age. Since many people do not know what happens to their recycling after they put it on the curb, it is perhaps not surprising that skepticism would arise. Therefore, an education campaign undertaken by the government and non-government organizations in order to affirm the benefits of segregating waste from recycling could go a long way in changing the status quo of Pakistan’s recycling industry. The program would also have to be accompanied by investment in separate public waste bins, each for a different waste type.

Given Pakistan’s current financial and energy crises and the accelerating rate of global climate change, Pakistan’s government and populace need to take concrete steps in order to mitigate their impact on the environment. Recycling is not only ‘worth the investment’, but one of the most feasible and effective ways to ensure that the country plays its role in combating climate change, while making economic gains and conserving its resources.

Writer is a sophomore, studying Political Economy and Environmental Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.