Context: Plastic waste and its management in India.
Rapid population growth, urbanization, and industrial growth have led to severe waste management problems in cities around the world. Simultaneous development in economic prosperity and industrialization often conflict with sound environmental considerations. Globally, nearly 140 million tons of plastics are produced each year. In India, around 4-5% of municipal solid waste (MSW) materials are post-consumer plastics.
35% of plastic consumption is in packaging, and 23% is in building and construction. Other relevant categories are transport (8%), electronics (8%) and agriculture (7%). Consumption of plastics in consumer goods is growing at an alarming rate, and much of this growth is likely to be rooted in rural areas.
The Present Scenario:
- As per CPCB reports, plastic contributes to 8% of the total solid waste, with Delhi producing the maximum quantity followed by Kolkata and Ahmadabad.
- Only 60% of the total plastic waste is being recycled. Households generate maximum plastic waste, of which water and soft drink bottles form a large number.
- In India, around 43% of manufactured plastics are used for packaging purpose and most are of single use.
- An estimate by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural gas suggests that the annual per capita consumption in India would be 20kgs by 2022.
- India is third highest consumer of materials after China and USA. Economic Survey 2019 estimates that India’s demand for total material will double by 2030 at current rates of growth.
- The retail sector expects e-commerce to grow from about $38.5 billion equivalent in 2017 to $200 billion by 2026.
Plastic in water bodies:
- The seas near Mumbai, Kerala and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are among the worst polluted in the world.
- Plastic debris affects at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species.
- Significant amount of toxic heavy metals like copper, zinc, lead and cadmium recovered from plastic wastes from sea shores have an adverse effect on the coastal ecosystems.
- Lead and Cadmium pigments, commonly used in most of the plastics as additives are hazardous in nature and are known to leach out.
- Several GHG gases are emitted from the landfills. Among them, carbon dioxide and methane constitute 90 to 98%.
Collection of plastic waste in India:
- Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 mandated the producers and brand owners to devise a plan in consultation with the local bodies to introduce a collect-back system. This system is known as the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR).
- CPCB has estimated the collection efficiency as 80.28% in 2014, out of which only 28.4% was treated. Remaining quantities were disposed in landfills or open dumps.
- ULBs could take cue from some best practices followed in cities like Bangalore where Dry Waste Collection Centers have not only been established but also have a self-sustainable business model.
- Need to establish a monetized collection model for plastic waste that has economic returns for all those involved.
- Virgin plastics (e.g. those used in food packets, etc) should be collected separately because of the higher value it draws.
National Rules and Guidelines on Plastic Waste Management: The Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2016, released by the MoEF in 2016, offer a series of directives to all urban and rural local bodies (Gram Panchayats).
- Leveraging EPRs and placing the burden on producers. Through a combination of extended producer responsibility (EPR) levers (which can only be feasibly activated with large manufacturers), as well as strict monitoring of informal and unorganized producers of plastics, governments should place the burden of sourcing plastic waste for recycling on the producers.
- Formalize collection through entrepreneurs in rural areas. States must encourage individual or SHG oriented last-mile entrepreneurs for plastics waste collection and provide them with formal contracts and connecting them to plastics aggregation points. This can follow models similar to the ‘Surya Mitra’ scheme launched for solar energy. Access to credit, training and other enabling mechanisms to local entrepreneurs should be provided as well as establishing links with technologies that can use plastics as inputs.
- Calls for ban on plastic bags below 50 micron thickness
- Phasing out of manufacture and sale of non-recyclable Multi-Layered Plastic (example: chips packets)
- Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): It is a concept where manufacturers and importers of products bear a significant degree of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products throughout the product life-cycle, including upstream impacts inherent in the selection of materials for the products, impacts from manufacturers’ production process itself, and downstream impacts from the use and disposal of the products. Extended producer responsibilities have a rich history in the West across different industries and product categories. The Indian 2016 Plastic Waste Management Rules also address the question of extended producer responsibility (EPR). They mandate plastic producers, importers and brand owners to contribute to the collection of plastic waste that is introduced by them. However, the rules do not lay out specific targets that have to be adopted by these entities. The EPR guidelines for e-waste have been made much more explicit, with fixed targets for producers and distributors of electronics.
Solutions to deal with rising plastic pollution:
- Plastics For Road Construction (Mechanic Recycling): The 2016 Solid Waste Management Rules require local bodies to dispose plastics such that they can be integrated into road construction as per guidelines issued by the Indian Roads Congress. Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) guidelines on the use of plastics in roads have also been issued. One important additional benefit of adopting this process at a large scale is the generation of cottage industries and local employment in plastic collection and shredding.
- Plastics Waste To Energy: Both Sawach Bharat Mission (SBM) and Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) guidelines encourage the implementation of waste to energy plants. The CSIR- Indian Institute of Petroleum developed, in 2014, a process of converting polyethylene and polypropylene to gasoline or diesel. These plastics account for approximately 60% of all plastic waste.
Conclusion: While plastic has many valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use or disposable plastic with severe environmental consequences. We need to slow the flow of plastic at its source, but we also need to improve the way we manage our plastic waste. As per UNEP report, if current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050. This time for all of us to wake up and save our lives from the choking plastic waste.