Manage plastic waste effectively

Sourabh Manuja | Updated on October 15, 2020

For this, States need to work closely with urban local bodies

Plastics, as materials, are not an issue, but it is their management that has been a challenge. Their negative impact on the environment, specifically marine life, comes from land-based activities. India generates around 26,000 tonnes of plastics every day from urban areas. The Central Pollution Control Board also reports that plastic waste on an average accounts for 6.92 per cent of municipal solid waste.

Plastic is a wonder material and its applications range broadly, from packaging to medical and engineering equipment and even aeronautics. Various life-cycle assessment studies have shown that plastics have lower carbon footprint than alternatives like paper, jute or even cloth. Highlighting that sustainable choice is about appropriate management of discarded plastics is needed to stop the ill-effects of plastics on the environment.

The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 clearly stipulate that urban local bodies (ULBs) should ban less than 50 micron thick plastic bags and not allow usage of recycled plastics for packing food, beverage or any other eatables. The Rules also require that local bodies should provide separate collection, storage and processing of plastic waste in their areas.

However, none of the ULBs has been able to comply fully with the Rules. There is an urgent need that local bodies implement these rules and strictly monitor their compliance.

Key role for informal sector

The informal sector plays an important role in the management of plastics. The recycling rate of plastics in India is expected to be around 60 per cent, though 94 per cent of plastics that we use are of thermoset category and can be recycled. It is important that ULBs integrate these informal sector workers, increase their capacities through training and workshops and provide more material recovery facilities in cities.

Further, the collection and recycling of waste in India is mostly governed by energy and economic linkages, thus leading to non-collection of low-value plastics like low density-poly ethylene (LDPE) bags or even multilayer plastic packagings. Thus, collection of such low-value items will have to be supported through financial models which are sustainable (like the Extended Producer Responsibility or deposit refund schemes) to make their collection and recycling feasible.

This will not only help cities manage waste efficiently but will also uplift their social and economic fabric. ULBs should also link these informal sector workers through government schemes for health insurance and life policies to provide a sense of safety and security among these workers.

ULBs should link these informal workers into formal chains through waste management concessionaires, self-help groups or non-government organisations (NGOs) and assure that these workers of last resort are uplifted and moved to formal work.

Segregation of waste at source is an important factor that can help improve material recovery and recycling rates. Once waste is primarily sorted at source into dry, wet and hazardous categories, it provides ample opportunity to recover plastics from dry waste at material-recovery facilities. Thus, citizen participation and engagement in managing plastics are equally important.

With waste management hierarchy in minds, citizens should be engaged through NGOs, formulated self-help groups of informal workers and market associations to reduce waste as much as possible. People should be asked to use reusable items and initiate models which allow up-cycling of waste items for better use. This will help reduce plastic waste from urban local bodies, as well as curb the value for waste among the citizens. Once waste is segregated, it will help cities bring in entrepreneurs who can help citizens manage discarded plastics as a resource.

All this requires political will as well as technical and financial support, which States are capable of providing. Urban development departments of States can closely work with the local administration of cities to help them establish innovative schemes and practices. States can even create a special wing/cell to help reduce waste burdens, spread awareness and increase recycling and recovery rates of plastics from various cities. States can also streamline policies and provide guidance to ULBs to gain financial support and establish user-fee models, and thus make waste management financially sustainable.

The write is a fellow in Environment and Waste Management Division in TERI. Views are personal

Published on October 15, 2020

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