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Here's what India needs for a systematic plastic waste recycling

May 20, 2023

Plastics are everywhere- it is one of the biggest threats looming over the world's environmental well-being. Global plastic waste generation has more than doubled from 2000 to 2019 to 359 million tonnes. India has been a consistent contributor to adding plastic waste to these numbers. According to Union Cabinet Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change Bhupender Yadav, India generates 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. The prolonged pandemic and the burst of retail spaces such as FMCG markets, e-commerce, and food delivery services have seen an upward growth in plastic consumption. Recycling – the need of the hourIn 2021, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted – 'Plastic per se is not a problem; it is uncollected plastic waste that is.' The tweet highlights an important issue, that plastic which can't be recycled goes unmanaged. According to the Central Pollution Control Board report 2019-2020, India recycles around 60% of plastic waste. The remaining 40% ends up in landfills, on the streets, clogging water bodies, etc. Unmanaged plastic also makes its way into the bellies of grazing animals, making it a concerning nuisance. This undisposed plastic is leading to a major plastic crisis.We as a country also struggle to do proper documentation of plastic recycling. India's significant waste segregation and recycling system operates through an informal process, wherein the ragpickers sort out the waste and sell it to dealers at measly daily wages. These dealers then sell the plastic to the plants. Central Pollution Control Board stated in its annual report of 2018-19 that the country has around 1080 unregistered recycling units. The report indicated that none of the states reported the installed capacity of these plastic recycling units, which raises serious questions about the country's plastic waste management abilities.India's policy is on the right track but needs momentumWith a goal to reduce plastic production, bring down littering and advocate proper segregation of plastic waste, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change introduced the Plastic Waste Management Rules in 2016. The rules allotted responsibilities to local bodies, gram panchayats, waste generators, retailers and street vendors to check plastic waste. The 2016 rules have been amended recently, with a new concept called Extended Producer Responsibility added in 2021. This new rule has specific guidelines imposed on the producer, importer, and brand owner to follow environment-friendly ways to dispose off plastic waste at pre-consumer and post-consumer plastic packing levels. "The enforceable prescription of a minimum level of recycling of plastic packaging waste collected under EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) by producers, importers and brand owners will strengthen the circular economy of plastic packaging waste. The guidelines also mandate use of recycled plastic in plastic packaging by the industry. This step will generate demand for recycled plastic material', says Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change Secretary, Leena Nandan. To curb the country's plastic pollution, the Central Government also announced a ban on single-use plastic across the country. Single-use plastics include items such as grocery bags, bottles, food cutlery, straws etc. However, the ban isn't sufficient to tackle plastic waste. There must be guidelines issued for alternatives to plastics, which at the moment are missing from the government rules. Along with the ban, the manufacturers must also be asked to mark the type of plastic used in a product, so it can be recycled accordingly, believe experts. There should also be a new regulatory body that enforces these rules, as the ban is not taken seriously in many parts of the country, defeating the purpose of introducing a ban to curb plastic usage. "One of the key challenges towards achieving environmental sustainability through the circular economy is to keep plastic waste collection and recycling lucrative. India generates enough waste to meet the demands of local industries which use recycled plastic waste as raw material for their products. Through a network of waste pickers, 'kabadiwalas', recyclers our country is the leader in the collection and recycling of many plastic resins," says Vinod Shukla, president, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay Smriti Manch. What more can be done?Many start-ups are focusing on building businesses in the waste management space. Their main goal is to recycle non-degradable waste into valuable resources. This is a good start, considering such innovative ideas can save the environment from catastrophic climate change consequences. For instance, a Pune-based start-up is developing sustainable materials to replace plastic. This start-up is developing paper cups that can hold hot liquids but can get decomposed in the natural environment within six months. Another start-up is making shoes from waste, sourced from a waste removal company that hires rag pickers. A lot of clothing brands are opting for sustainable fashion as opposed to fast fashion, which has a negative environmental impact.In 2018, The Coca-Cola Company unveiled ‘World Without Waste’ - a bold, ambitious sustainable packaging initiative that is creating systemic change by driving a circular economy for bottles and cans across the globe. The initiative lays emphasis on Coca-Cola’s innovations in technologies to reduce, recycle, and repurpose plastic waste to build a Circular Economy for Plastics - from how bottles and cans are designed and produced, to how they’re recycled and repurposed through three fundamental goals i.e., design, collect and partner.In line with the global initiative, there are various projects being undertaken by Coca-Cola in India, aimed at waste segregation, improving the standard of living of waste recyclers, and creating awareness at the grassroots level around recycling and reusing of PET containers and plastic waste. Through these efforts, Coca-Cola India has been able to recover 62,825 MT of post-consumer packaging material in 2020 and helped recover 36% of cans and bottles which were introduced in the Indian marketplace.Coca-Cola India is also a founding member of India Plastics Pact (IPP), Asia's first such pact to promote a circular economy for plastics by a public-private collaboration that enables innovative ways to eliminate, reuse, or recycle the plastic packaging across the plastics value chain. To know more about Coca-Cola’s efforts in the space of plastic circularity, please click here.There should also be a collective effort made by universities, research organizations, plastic manufacturers, and, most importantly, policymakers. They should collaborate and come up with ideas for renewable energy integration and process optimisation. Another way is to build local communities that will collaborate on conducting waste picking drives that will motivate others to participate in the same. After all, the fight against plastic should have each citizen ready to combat its vicious effects.

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