From a society’s perspective, plastic pollution is a symptom of a broader challenge to sustainable production and consumption. Therefore, it is relevant to approach the challenge through the rubric of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this article, Dr. Gaurav Bhatiani, Director (Energy and Environment) and Nutan Zarapkar, Director (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) share that to fight plastic pollution, accelerating the adoption and deployment of technologies will require a change in the mindset and new approaches to developing collaborations.
A study by University of Queensland scientists reports that more than half of the turtles globally have ingested plastic. The number varies by different species and oceans, but plastic pollution and its ingestion is a common concern globally. While the direct threat to human health is still to be conclusively proven, there is enough evidence that plastic pollution is a clear and present danger and needs to be addressed by concerted and coordinated action on multiple fronts. From a society’s perspective, plastic pollution is a symptom of a broader challenge to sustainable production and consumption. Therefore, it is relevant to approach the challenge through the rubric of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
India ranked low (120) on the recent Sustainable Development Index rankings published by Cambridge University1. The report lists several SDGs such as Sustainable Communities and Cities, Life on Land, Life below Water, and, Good Health and Well-Being, as “major challenges” for the country. Sustainable waste management is an underlying challenge common to several SDGs, as evident from the existence of the world’s largest open dumpsites in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. Large populations often live close to them, and a large informal sector exists working in hazardous conditions.
Efforts to improve waste management started in 2014 (World Bank What a Waste 2.0)² with the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission. While the initial focus was to reduce and eliminate open defecation, the importance of scientifically managing various waste streams is now well recognised. Regulations were strengthened in 2016 and incentives were provided through central schemes. Nevertheless, the change has been slow and there is growing recognition that the increasing quantum of waste requires urgent and decisive action, particularly to manage more challenging components such as the non- recyclable and single-use plastic, and electronic waste, among others.
Managing plastic waste, particularly the non-recyclable component, is a key concern because of its wide- scale use and properties. Plastic is used from money to packaging to appliances to sanitary napkins, etc. It is present in almost everything that we use. Its consumption and production have increased rapidly. In 1950, the world produced 2 million tons a year, which increased 200- fold by 2015. Globally, to date, there is about 8.3 billion tons of plastic in the world – some 6.3 billion tons of that is trash³. The discarded and untreated plastic waste spills onto land, flows into water bodies, and ultimately to the seas and oceans. It severely pollutes the environment posing a serious threat to the ecosystem and its health.
India generates 15 million tonnes of plastic waste every year but only one-fourth of this is recycled due to an inadequate solid waste management system.
Realising the gravity of the challenge, the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016 and 2018 were recently amended in February 2022 to focus on the stringent implementation of the Extended Producer Responsibility. The Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, mandate the generators of plastic waste to take steps to minimise generation of plastic waste, not litter the plastic waste, and ensure segregated storage of waste at the source. The rules also mandate the responsibilities of local bodies, gram panchayats, waste generators, retailers, strengthened the and street vendors to manage plastic waste. The recent amendment has further strengthened the Extended Producer Responsibility Guidelines covering (i) Reuse; (ii) Recycling; (iii) Use of recycled plastic content; (iv) End of life disposal. The key changed enabled in the amendment include:
- Extended Producer Responsibility Certificates: The guidelines allow for the sale and purchase of surplus extended producer responsibility certificates. This will set up brand owners a market mechanism for plastic waste management.
- Centralised online portal: The government has also called for establishing a centralized online portal by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for the registration as well as filing of annual returns by producers, importers and brand-owners, plastic waste processors of plastic packaging waste by 31st March, 2022.
While the policy action is commendable, a comprehensive ecosystem encompassing technology, financing, and stakeholder engagement is required to address interrelated challenges of reducing the use of plastic by developing alternatives, scientific management of waste on land to reduce the amount going to dumpsites, and extract waste already in water bodies such as rivers and oceans.
On the technology front, research and development have created several newer alternatives to complement traditional options i.e., glass, steel, wood, and plant materials such as leaves. These options include recyclable plastics (polylactic acid PLA as an example) that are compostable and made from natural sources such as corn or sugarcane pulp, amongst others. Bioplastic made from lignin, a byproduct from paper mills is another promising material with multiple use cases such as replacement for plastic, polyethylene and nylon.
Collecting floating ocean plastic waste is more burdensome and complicated than collecting it on land. However, efforts are underway by technology players to test and commercialise solutions for the management of ocean plastic waste. One such technology is Sea Robots. This aqua drone “sweeps up” plastic waste from the ocean surface with the help of computer vision and remote sensing. Another upcoming application is a system for large- scale collection of plastic waste in the form of fishing nets and ropes. This system has been collecting 7,000 metric tons of raw material for plastic recycling every year and using it to develop a strong nylon yarn that can be used in clothing, carpets and other textiles. This approach reduces ocean waste as well as pollution from textile manufacturing. Still, others are working to develop processes that convert plastic waste into a high- quality liquid, which can then be used to produce new plastic products and chemicals.
While these new technologies hold promise, it is more effective and efficient to manage the plastic on the land before it enters the water bodies. While several Waste to Energy (WtE) plants have been developed, their cost is high and performance less than satisfactory4. Unfortunately, the focus on developing WtE has meant that incineration of non-recyclable plastic in cement kilns remains underutilized. India is the second- largest producer of cement globally with manufacturing facilities spread in many states. Further, incineration in cement kilns recycles not only extract the embodied energy but also the material, leaving no residue, unlike the WtE facilities. Since cement plants require relatively minor investment to treat the waste and are already equipped with emission monitoring systems, this low-cost option needs to be incentivized through policy and regulatory mechanisms. Such an approach need not be exclusionary; i.e., similar incentives can be provided to WtE and cement kilns to enable the best possible option depending on location and local circumstances. It is likely that large metros and cities that are at longer distances from cement plants will require WtE plants, but many towns and cities may have a better alternative readily available in form of a cement kiln close by.
Accelerating the adoption and deployment of technologies will require a change in the mindset and new approaches to developing collaborations. According to UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, “Marine debris – trash in our oceans – is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources.”
First, partnering with citizens and local communities to ensure that waste is minimised by using alternatives. Second, to segregate waste at the source and transport it as such. Third, involving the informal sector as a partner, developing business models and collaborative local solutions will further enable this transition. Fourth, there is a need to address governance challenges in the sector. Often, last-mile officials are engaged in unethical practices that undermine the viability of investments and threaten the environment and health of citizens. Last but not the least, develop institutional capacity, particularly of the urban local bodies involved in managing the plastic waste.
Many of these challenges and solutions are known. Expert committee reports and international experience provide an extensive body of knowledge to guide the transformation. Funding is abundantly available and so are better technologies. What we need is a realization. A realisation best quoted in the words of the Dalai Lama, “We have a responsibility to look after our planer. It is our only home.
3. 7+ Revealing Plastic Waste Statistics (2021) | Recycle Coach