Every piece of plastic ever disposed of (this includes the toothbrush your great-grandfather used) is damaging the earth. It’s lying somewhere in the earth, floating in the ocean, or been broken down into microparticles and in the food chain. Although a fraction of the plastic disposed of is recycled, most of it eventually ends up in the ocean or in dump sites outside city limits.
The best way to reduce plastic pollution is to reduce and phase out its consumption. Solutions range from carrying your own reusable steel glass, box, spoon and cloth bag while eating out or shopping for groceries to using alternatives to plastic for household items.
Rules and results
India’s Plastic Waste Management Rules (published in March 2016) called for a ban on plastic bags below 50 micron thickness and a phasing out, within two years, of the manufacture and sale of non-recyclable, multi-layered plastic (plastic that snacks come in). More than 20 Indian States have announced a ban on plastic bags. Cities such as Bengaluru announced a complete ban (gazette notification), in 2016, on the manufacture, supply, sale and use of thermocol and plastic items irrespective of thickness. These include carry bags, banners, buntings, flex, flags, plates, clips, spoons, cling films and plastic sheets used while dining. The exceptions are plastic for export, packaging material for use in forestry, milk packets and hospitals. There are stiff fines that cover manufacturing and disposal.
However, a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report has said that this ban is barely effective Citizens need to be aware of these rules, governments need to work with citizens to collect fines and companies need to be held accountable in terms of their environmental and social responsibilities. Additionally, there should be research on ways to implement these rules, waste generation quantities and trends and find innovative alternatives to plastic.
We also need strategies to deal with the plastic that has already been disposed of. The same report says that India generates an estimated 16 lakh tonnes of plastic waste annually. If sold at the global average rate of 50 cents a kg, it can generate a revenue of ₹5,600 crore a year. Why then is most of this waste around us? In order to realise the potential for recycling, waste must first be segregated at source. This segregated waste should be then transported and treated separately. If plastic waste is mixed with organic and sanitary matter, its recyclability drastically reduces and its value lost. As mentioned in the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, waste has to be segregated separately at source. This includes separation of dry (plastic, paper, metal, glass) and wet (kitchen and garden) waste at source.
The primary responsibility for collection of used plastic and multi-layered plastic sachets (branded chips, biscuit and snack packets) lies with their producers, importers and brand owners. Companies should have already submitted plans, by September 2016, for waste collection systems based on extended producer responsibility (EPR) either through their own distribution channels or with the local body concerned. Here, the onus of disposal and recycling of products and materials is with producers, rather than on taxpayers and governments. However, none of this has happened at any perceivable scale. Companies say that plastic waste is too complex or pretend to be completely unaware of these rules.
From pollution to solutions
Admittedly, the complexity of dealing with plastic waste is because of its ubiquity and distributed market. Several companies produce the same type of packaging so it is impossible for a given company to collect and recycle only its own packaging. Instead, these companies can collectively implement EPR by geographically dividing a region into zones and handle the waste generated in their designated zones. This strategy was used in Switzerland to recycle thermocol used for insulation of buildings. This also reduces collection, transportation and recycling costs. Companies and governments should interact and research on how to implement such plans.
In India, some companies have helped empower the informal recycling sector, giving waste pickers dignity and steady incomes. Another firm has worked with the informal sector and engineered the production of high quality recycled plastic. These companies, large corporates and governments could cooperate to implement innovative means to realise the value of plastic disposed of while simultaneously investing in phasing it out. For example, a Canadian company monetises plastic waste in novel ways. It has one of the largest chains of waste plastic collection centres, where waste can be exchanged for anything (from cash to medical insurance to cooking fuel). Through this, multinational corporations have invested in recycling infrastructure and in providing a steady and increased rate for waste plastic to incentivise collection in poor countries. Such collection centres, like the ones operated by informal aggregators in India, can be very low-cost investments (a storage facility with a weighing scale and a smart phone).
It is time we rethink, reduce, segregate and recycle every time we encounter a piece of plastic so that it stops damaging our environment and our lives.
Megha Shenoy is Adjunct Fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru