Clean Tech

The Plastic Trap

Preeti Mehra | Updated on June 19, 2018 Published on June 19, 2018

To manage this man-made waste requires strategy, innovation, and most of all, commitment, writes Preeti Mehra

Be it Kuta beach in Bali, the seashore in Greece’s Neo Faliro, a coastal strip in the Philippines or closer home, the banks of the river Yamuna near Taj Mahal in Agra, it’s the same grim scenario. Miles and mounds (sometimes mountains) of plastic waste in the form of carry bags, bottles, caps, cups and packaging meet the eye.

To focus on the humungous amount of plastic waste that finds its way to our beaches, waterways, forests and even mountains, the United Nations chose the theme “beat plastic pollution” on June 5, World Environment Day. Even as UN Secretary General António Guterres warned of plastic waste reaching unmanageable levels with “every year more than eight million tonne ending up in the oceans,” countries scurried to find tangible solutions.

The European Union chose the occasion to talk about its proposal to ban single-use plastic products such as spoons, cotton buds and drinking straws. The legislation, when passed, will put the onus of collecting and cleaning the waste on manufacturers of these products. It would also require its member countries to collect 90 per cent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025 to discourage the ‘use and throw’ culture and nudge manufacturers to turn to sustainable materials.

In India too, where single-use plastic disposables are a growing menace along with indiscriminate use of carry bags and other plastic, a discussion paper titled, ‘Opportunities and Challenges of Plastics Waste Management’ was released by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change along with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The two also entered into an MoU to set up a Government cell that would provide a platform to include resource efficiency in all future public policies. Plastic waste would be one of the targets.

No systems in place

TERI’s paper revealed some startling statistics. The average per capita plastic consumption in India is about 11 kg, and though it is much lower than the global average of 28 kg, only 60 per cent of it gets recycled. “The cause of concern is the lack of an organised mechanism to deal with 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste generated per day,” it stated, pointing to the Central Pollution Control Board’s data on plastic contributing to 8 per cent of total solid waste, with Delhi producing the maximum, followed by Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Further, the paper quotes an estimate of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, which predicts annual per capita consumption of plastic in India hitting 20 kg by 2022, pointing to a larger crisis if left unresolved.

TERI’s paper lists some of the sustainable options its research and policy team have explored to address the issue, though some are still being tested. The first, a trifle expensive, is to produce bio-based and biodegradable plastic, which utilises starch, cellulose, and polylactic acid as raw material, for short-term use products.

The second, which the paper calls “viable and technically feasible”, pertains to recycling of plastics using technologies through which a second supply chain of raw material can be produced. “Recovery of secondary raw materials through recycling is given the highest priority after reuse, according to the waste hierarchy. Recycling options are generally classified into primary and secondary recycling, while tertiary recycling is preferred for multi-layered plastics (MLPs) where separating individual layers is difficult and expensive,” the paper explains. This option would necessarily need participation of the public, who will have to segregate waste material at source.

The third option, under research, is to generate fuel from waste plastics. And the fourth is to find other fruitful applications for non-recyclable plastic waste. Currently it is being used in cement kilns and for laying roads, when integrated with bitumen.

Take back the waste

Though we do have a few options, why is plastic waste still growing? One of the causes is that laws have not been implemented adequately and, in some cases, even diluted. Plastic waste management rules were first introduced under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, in 2011. This put the onus of collecting waste on the urban local bodies overseen by state monitoring committees. It set a standard for the thickness of plastic carry bags and made it compulsory for retailers to charge for the bag provided. In 2016, the rules became more stringent in several aspects. The most significant was the introduction of the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR) where manufacturers were required to collect the waste they were generating. For instance, a cold drink manufacturer would have to take back the PET bottle. Even more significant was that as part of the EPR, it mandated collection of a fee from the manufacturers and those who import plastic carry bags or multi-layered packaging. This would in turn strengthen the financial status of local authorities and provide an impetus to the plastic waste management systems.

These rules obviously must have come under attack by certain lobbies, though the TERI paper is silent on that aspect. For in 2018, we saw the rules tweaked again, and this in a sense seems to be a step backwards. So, in the rules notified under Section 9(3), the term ‘non-recyclable MLPs’ has been replaced by ‘MLP which is non-recyclable or non-energy recoverable or with no alternate use’. Section 15 dealing with the pricing of carry bags has also been omitted. Additionally, a vendor is no longer required to pay a fee to the urban local body or register with it. Instead, there are plans afoot to start a centralised registration system where producers who operate in more than two states would have to register with the Central Pollution Control Board.

Given this situation, how do we go forward? Some States have been proactive with legislation. Goa is one of them and has been recently followed by Maharashtra, which orchestrated a ban on carry bags and single use plastics in March. The new line of thinking is to encourage small entrepreneurs by incentivising recycling and formulating some innovative economic models. The TERI paper feels that this would fit in with the practice where “the kabadiwallah incentivises residents to segregate newspapers and in turn is paid by the dry waste collection centers as per pre-decided prices fixed by the municipality, especially for commodities based out of virgin plastic like polyethylenes and styrofoam, owing to their high recyclability quotient.”

This June 5, there was an attempt to open new windows for plastic waste management, including launching an industry-based consortium that would create supply chains to manage plastic waste.

The job of the consortium, which has eight members comprising the Aditya Birla Group, RED FM, KidZania India – ImagiNation Edutainment India Pvt Ltd, Dalmia (Bharat) Cement Ltd, Uflex Ltd, and DS Group of Companies, would be ‘waste-proofing the future’. And to do this, it would “identify the institutional and policy interventions needed to sustainably manage waste.”

At the launch, Dr Ajay Mathur, Director General, TERI, said, “Waste proofing needs both technologies and business models. We need to convert used plastics into hangers and buckets and into higher quality products. We also need to enable collectors and recyclers to run these as profitable enterprises. Banning plastic is not the solution – banning only makes sense when collection and recycling is not possible.”

While the consortium has spelt out a roadmap of sorts that seeks to create a supply chain for various types of wastes so that there is a business case for all stakeholders, it remains to be seen how such a move will pan out in the long run. But one thing is for sure. If solutions are not found quickly, India will have to get ready for the worst-case scenario — of being buried under plastic waste.

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Published on June 19, 2018
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