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Recycling takes a new step forward

Thai charity group turning refuse into artificial limbs

SHARE Recycling takes a new step forward

ARANYAPRATHET, Thailand (AP) — It was three years ago that Wisit Kraitin stepped on a land mine as he herded water buffaloes across a meadow near the Thai-Cambodian border.

"The whole world blew up in my face, and my first thought was: 'Why me? Why not the buffaloes?"' the 29-year-old farmer recalled. "Later, I thought that Lady Luck had stood by my buffaloes. They returned safely home on their four legs."

With his right leg amputated at the knee, Wisit has used a prosthetic leg, but after three years of hard work it has worn out and he needs a new one.

That's not an easy proposition for Wisit, since an artificial leg costs around $25 and he earns about 5 cents a day.

So he got one for free, a leg made of materials recycled from discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

The recycling program is led by the Prosthesis Foundation of Thailand, which makes the rounds of rural areas in a mission to provide free artificial limbs to every poor land mine victim in Thailand.

Hundreds of farmers, mostly poor, have been crippled by land mines along Thailand's borders with Cambodia and Myanmar, where internal wars have spilled over into Thai territory in the form of hidden minefields.

The foundation was founded in 1992 by the late mother of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In recent years donations to the group decreased, said Therdchai Cheevaket, the foundation's chief doctor. So a new way had to be found to lower production costs of prosthetic devices.

The foundation began a collection of discarded plastic bottles, which were turned into plastic sheets for use in prosthetic devices. For metal needed to fashion artificial limbs, the foundation gathered used aluminum cans.

Ajinomoto Sales of Thailand, which produces coffee in popular flip-top cans, helped the foundation when it started a nationwide campaign in 1998 called "One flip top toward a new step," urging Thais to drop the can tops into special boxes at department stores, university campuses and other locations.

Within a year of the campaign, the foundation collected 4,180 pounds of fused aluminum, enough to make 4,500 artificial limbs at a reduced cost.

During the first seven months of 1999, 863 handicapped persons were fitted out with prosthetic devices, compared to only 858 from 1992-1999, Therdchai said.

"However, more people wait for help. Every year, thousands of poor Thais are crippled by accidents or land mines or illness and they wait for the foundation to help restore their life," Therdchai said. The foundation says one-third of the victims are crippled by land mines.

Many of Wisit's neighbors at Klong Nam Sai, a remote village 143 miles northeast of Bangkok, have also lost limbs from mine blasts.

Wisit's worn-out artificial leg was causing him pain with every step. So Wisit lined up with 200 other land mine victims in Aranyaprather, a town near the Cambodian border, to get help from the foundation.

"Although Lady Luck abandoned me at the time of the blast, my life is not so hard because of the generosity of so many people that I don't even know," he said.