Politics of recycling plastic

Topics plastic | recycling | plastic ban

Covid-19 is all-subsuming; it makes difficult thinking or acting on issues that made up our world yesterday and would stay in our world of tomorrow. One such issue is that of plastic — the most ubiquitous substance in our lives that fills up our land and oceans, polluting them and adding to our health stress. The current health emergency has normalised the use of plastic as we use more and more of it as protection measures against the virus. Plastic protection gear — from gloves and masks to body suits — so critical in this “war” against Covid-19, will also contribute to the mountains of trash in our cities if they are not incinerated in properly controlled and managed medical waste disposal facilities.

The politics of plastic is wrapped up in a benign word called “recycling”. The plastic industry globally has successfully argued that we can continue to use this highly durable substance because once we throw it, it will be recycled. Never mind that nobody knows what this means. When China came up with its 2018 National Sword Policy to stop imports of plastic waste for “re-processing”, the rich nations woke up to some harsh realities. Ships of plastic waste were turned away from many other countries as well, including Malaysia and Indonesia. Nobody wanted this waste. They had enough of their own to deal with.

It is reported that prior to the 2018 ban, 95 per cent of the European Union’s and 70 per cent of the US’s plastic waste collected for recycling was sold and shipped to China. The dependence on China meant that recycling standards had become slack — food waste was mixed with plastic and the industry excelled in creating new products, design, and colours of the waste. All this meant that waste was more contaminated, making recycling difficult. So much so that even China, which can create business from nothing, found it unprofitable to reprocess it.

India’s plastic waste problem is not as huge as the rich world, but it is growing. The latest annual report of the Central Pollution Control Board on plastic waste tells it all — while rich states like Goa produce as much as 60 grams of plastic per capita per day; Delhi is catching up with 37 grams per capita per day. The national average is around 8 grams per capita per day. In other words, as societies become more affluent, they will become more wasteful. This is the ladder of wealth we must not aspire to climb.

However, given the huge litter of plastic we can already see in our cities, it is clear we cannot get sanguine about the fact that we will catch up — collect more, recycle more. This will not work, unless we can think differently and act decisively. Something that is sorely missing today.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a powerful statement on Independence Day last year, calling on us to give up the habit of using plastic and promising that his government would announce significant plans for reduction. But his government is doing pretty much the reverse.

And again, the politics is about recycling. The industry has, once again, managed to convince policymakers that plastic waste is not a problem because we can recycle virtually everything. It’s a bit like tobacco — if we stop smoking, farmers will be affected. If we stop using plastic, the recycling industry — run by small units, working often in the informal sector, and with the poorest people who work in a most abysmal condition — will collapse. Jobs will be lost.

Let’s first discuss as to what happens to the waste that cannot be recycled. All studies (limited as they are) show that the plastic waste in drains or in landfills comprises the least recyclable material — this is multi-layered packaging (food stuff of all kinds), sachets (gutkha or shampoo), and plastic bags. The 2016 Plastic Management Rules recognised this and said sachets would be banned and all multi-layered plastic use would be phased out in two years. In 2018, this was fatally amended — now only waste that is non-recyclable, and if there is any of this at all, needs to be phased out. This is not to say that theoretically multilayered plastic or sachets cannot be recycled — they can be sent to cement plants for energy recovery or used in road construction.

But everyone knows it is nearly impossible to first segregate, collect, and then transport these empty, soiled packages. So, business continues as usual. Our garbage problem does not go away. The second issue is: What do we really mean by recycling? The fact is that recycling plastic needs careful segregation at household level; this puts the onus on us and the local bodies. So, it’s time we dismembered and took apart the world of recycling. I will discuss this further with you in the coming weeks.
The writer is at the Centre for Science and Environment

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