What Indian firms can learn from global plastic waste management

Since the government announced a ban on a slew of polluting items, the PET Packaging Association for Clean Environment has taken out advertisements saying that in India over 90 per cent of polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles are recycled
The debate raging over eliminating single-use plastic in India mirrors a growing global impatience over the ecological challenges this otherwise useful material poses. The country which generates 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste every day (TERI, 2018) and the industry, which represents the “whipping boy” in the discourse, can also learn a lesson or two from successful plastic waste management strategies adopted globally.

Be it corporations, civic agencies or the general public — stakeholders in the value chain across the world are trying out innovative solutions, clearly laying down regulation and enforcing adherence of these rules, besides incentivising households for recycling. One or a combination of these strategies also exist in India but experts say the degree of success in some countries makes them worth emulating.

Before proceeding, one thing needs to be noted: India Inc has already started taking tentative steps to deal with the menace of plastic waste, and recycling, as some firms Business Standard spoke to said, is now hygiene.

Indeed, since the government announced a ban on a slew of polluting items, the PET Packaging Association for Clean Environment has taken out advertisements saying that in India over 90 per cent of polyethylene terephthalate or PET bottles are recycled. Those are encouraging numbers but we are way behind firms in the West that have found ways to reuse them gainfully. Suneel Pandey, director and senior fellow, environment and waste management division, TERI, says that in some of these countries, PET bottles are converted into new bottles while here in India, they are downgraded into other forms of packaging. “It’s downcycling and not recycling. In India, PET is not made into PET. It is used to make other low grade items and after four or five cycles, it can’t be recycled any further,” adds Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager (environmental governance & waste management), Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

And therein lies the problem.

While India’s per capita consumption of plastic is low at 12 kg per annum compared to China’s 30 kg per annum and US’ 109 kg per annum (source: All India Plastics Manufacturers’ Association or AIPMA), the sheer combined volume is high due to the vast population. Besides single- use plastics, the definition of which remains ambiguous, multi-layered packaging or MLP has a vast footprint and can’t be recycled. "Also, if you look at the categories, it is mostly HDPE used to make very thick water bottles, polypropelene used to make shampoo bottles or the pet bottles that are being recycled,” adds Sambyal.

Talking about global best practices, Pandey cites the cases of sportswear giants Adidas and Nike which have started using plastic waste to make T-shirts and accessories. He also mentions the instances of Lenovo and Dell that have started using plastic derived from marine litter in their laptops.

Apple in April announced a major expansion of its recycling programmes, quadrupling the number of locations US customers can send their iPhone to be disassembled by Daisy, its recycling robot. Earlier this year Walmart Canada announced that it was reducing check-out plastic bags by a further 50 per cent by 2025, taking approximately 

1 billion bags out of circulation over that period. It also said that it had a goal of eliminating “hard-to-recycle” PVC and expanded polystyrene packaging from all its own private labels by 2025.

Sambyal says much of the good work that is happening globally is a reflection of the "producers’ responsibility" in those countries that fare better than India when it comes to plastic waste management. “Anything that is recyclable, there is 90 per cent chance for those items to go into the recycling stream. Packaging items are sent for incineration. For example, the European Union (EU) has taken a commitment from member countries that they will phase out carry bags within a certain time frame,” she says.

As far as the US is concerned, the strategy of corporates is mostly incineration- and disposal-intensive but if you look at Germany or the Scandinavian countries, firms and brands have deposit response schemes, pick bags and collection centres to discourage consumers from using plastic bags.

Citing another case, Sambyal she says that in Germany, some industries have been given time and targets for transition. “This reduction is also to be implemented in a phased manner beginning first with 20 per cent and then taking it up to 50 per cent of the use of certain kinds of plastics,” she says.

Deepak Ballani, director general of the AIPMA, the representative body of plastic processors in the country, says municipal apathy, the lack of clear definition and regulatory hurdles remain challenges in plastic waste management by corporate India. “The lack of framework has resulted in the non-implementation of extended producer’s responsibility. But we are voluntarily doing some of the work,” he says. Despite the challenges, India has done well by recycling 60 per cent of the plastic waste it generates. In a recent example PepsiCo, Coca-Cola India and Parle Agro have come together to start a plastic waste management programme that aims to mobilise and converge assets and resources to achieve a certain target. They plan to have a network of 125 material recovery facilities in the country, which will work with over 2,500 aggregators over the next three years. By 2025, they aim to recycle all recyclable plastic in the country. An investment of more than Rs 1,000 crore has been earmarked for the programme.

That said, consumers are an important cog in the wheel and must take part in the process, starting with segregation. 

“So we have to see that segregation is not limited to a couple of items. In counties like south Korea there are separate collection days for paper, egg cartons, glass and plastic items and even within the plastic items, different arrangement for pet bottles and other sub categories. This ensures that you get really clean streams which can go for recycling. In India, by contrast, we are hardly able to do segregation rightly. By law, we have to divide it into three categories — wet, dry and domestic hazardous waste — but even ensuring two is a huge problem,” says CSE’s Sambyal.

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