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How Well Are We Segregating Plastic Waste In India

With recent announcements on single-use plastic ban, various companies are taking relevant steps to turn towards greener solution while preaching the concept of source segregation primarily.

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Recently, Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change during a Lok Sabha response informed that 40 per cent of plastic waste in the country is usually littered and remains uncollected on the street. Plastic waste management and littering have been an important issue which is prevalent for years. With recent announcements around the ubiquitous plastic ban and further rolled back from its own stand, the government has made a smart move to wipe the slate clean on blanket plastic ban. 

The recent furore over the single-use plastic ban has left various plastic manufacturers and units shaken affecting the whole plastic economy drastically. Manufacturing units have no clarification on the definition of the single-use plastic. Ashish Jain, Founder, and Director of Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA) said, “Although, the government has created a hype about the ban on single-use plastic and for this reason, there is a drop in the sale and production of many plastic consumables.”

However, few companies are in a move to see this as an opportunity for a change. Jeevaraj Pillai, JT. President - Packaging & New Product Development, UFlex Limited informed, “We see this as an opportunity as we will soon be venturing into the manufacturing of a viable and an implementable biodegradable solution.”

Alternatives and revised cost 
Plastic stake in the market is huge and 25 per cent revenue of petroleum and chemical industries comes from plastic only. It won’t be wrong to mention that five trillion economy growth cannot be achieved with the ban on plastic consumables, said an expert. 

Considering the economics of the announcement which has indirectly affected the cost of plastic manufacturing immensely, Moglix, a digital supply chain platform supporting nd elevating various SMEs finds that resisting consumption of single-use plastics and moving over to sustainable solutions can increase the cost of packaging for companies by up to three times. “Through innovative solutions, we have helped our customers to absorb the economic impact of the transition to eco-friendly packaging to just a 15 per cent cost increase of the packaging,” added Partha Dash, Senior Vice President- Business Operations, Moglix. Most companies working on the manufacturing of plastic consider this as a push to stop the use of plastic and switch to other sustainable options. Jain states, “We don’t have any sustainable alternatives today but industries and packaging companies are working on it and hopefully we will get some good alternatives soon. But definitely, the coming alternative will be costly in the initial phase and there may be some resistance on the use and also may pose some challenges on its disposal. 

However, it’s an accepted fact that plastics are possibly one of man’s best inventions of this century. “We have to take responsibility for its end of life where it is not collected and recycled and reprocessed,” added Pillai. UFlex through its practices is trying to recycle plastic waste into granules which is further used to make 10,000 household and industrial products like road dividers, door and window panel, outdoor furniture and much more. The second method they follow is reprocessing of plastic waste into fuel through the process of Pyrolysis that emits zero greenhouse emission. They also have a green sourced plastic packaging film Asclepius which is manufactured by recycling collected PET plastic bottle waste. It is also working on a special technology that will convert plastic waste into 100 per cent biodegradable biomass. 

However, depending on the type of industry and usage, there are different types of solutions. Moglix being a supply chain platform has helped food companies to switch from traditional polypropylene or PET-based containers to PLA (corn starch), aluminium, paper, areca or bamboo leaves based solutions. “We have helped e-commerce companies to switch from LDPE bags to corns starch-based, paper, jute, cotton-based bags. Typically costs of such solutions are higher ranging from the existing costs but if used judiciously, can bring the overall cost of ownership as most of these materials can be used multiple times,” added Dash.

Government’s stand 
Centre has put the onus on the state governments regarding the usage of single-use plastic and its ban and further shelved it. It is right that the onus is on state government and many state governments are bringing their own bye-laws and restrictions on the uses of various plastic commodities. “We have 34 states and UT and if each state brings its own policy on plastic uses then it will be a bane for everyone and not only corporate. This will dilute the main intentions to beat pollution caused by mismanagement of plastic. Enforcement of such policies at the state level will be difficult. The best solution is to have a uniform policy with the main emphasis on segregation, collection mechanisms while strengthening the working of ULBS,” states Jain. 

UFlex manufactures multi-layer plastic, which is recyclable. “We are betting that increasing awareness about sustainability will offer opportunities for growth and more and more consumer product companies will embrace green packaging. However, the real challenge that needs to be addressed is not plastic but plastic waste management. Pillai opines, “We need to have an infrastructure for its proper segregation and collection of plastic waste. If we start attaching an economic value to this plastic waste, this waste can be turned into wealth. The government and industry need to come together to work on waste management such that rag-pickers get incentivised to sort out waste and get that plastic waste to its right stream for recycling or reprocessing.”

The end-consumers should also be made more aware about not littering and how to segregate waste at their end. “Historically, we have seen that penalties bring about a change in human behaviour even if it forced, so imposing fines on both sides of the equation, i.e. corporates and consumers help, should be considered too,” added Pillai. 

India v/s countries abroad
Countries abroad are also fighting with plastic menace. In the United States, less than 10 per cent of plastic is recycled in the US and less than a fifth of all the plastic is recycled globally. However, various corporates and non-profits are working rigorously in this area. Jain from IPCA informed, “I think extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a good and doable example and companies are acceptable to the concept of EPR. Many brand owners and producers are doing their EPR at the national level and on a good scale. In the last two year, due to EPR, approximately 70-80,000 MT of plastic packaging had been collected and recycled/co-processed. Rag-pickers / Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) / recyclers etc. were involved in the supply chain and lots of awareness campaign were organised at various levels. In future, if this will continue with more brand owner and producer with 100 per cent EPR, then one day, we won’t have a single pouch of plastic litter on the road and we had such example in past.” 

Most countries practise the system of collection-segregation and recycling model when it comes to Multilayer Packaging (MLP). MLP being light in nature, does not create an economic value creation, for a manual collection and segregation system. Automatic Municipal Waste Sorters hence are used to segregate the garbage into organic waste and recyclables, by most developed countries, including China. The municipality or the townships collect and deliver the garbage to the sorting companies. These companies against a receipt of a small payment then segregate the garbage and sell the recyclables for meeting the day-to-day running and operating expenses. The fee paid to the sorting companies comes from the EPR which is collected from the brand owners/producers. This is a win-win business model wherein the consumer bears the cost of a healthy living and a clean environment.

Dash informed, “ Some countries or their specific states have different kinds of bans on plastic usage including the developed ones like the USA or Australia or the emerging economies like Kenya or Zimbabwe. We can learn from their adoption of innovative technologies that are capable of replacing plastics.” 

It is often opined by experts that poor segregation, collection and disposal mechanism are the main reasons behind plastic menace in India. However, lack of awareness and responsibilities among the consumers and lack of efficient design of packaging could also be added to the list. Pillai added that source segregation itself is missing and all recyclables are mixed with garbage before being sent to landfills. “As the plastics are light in weight, it becomes difficult to encourage the rag-pickers to pick them up from the land-fills. And hence remain dumped. Support from the government is required in terms of CAPEX participation for automatic MSW sorters. These types of sorters are being used to segregate plastics waste from households and municipal garbage in many developed countries and it’s time we take a cue from that.”

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