To erase plastic waste, focus on recyclability
Plastic is a ubiquitous and long-lasting substance — essential for almost everything we do. But it has now become a bane to our environment.
In the past 50-odd years, the world has learnt, to its horror, the problems of long-lasting and non-destructive substances that were once considered wonder materials. Take DDT, the persistent pesticide that had such a long residence time in the environment that it led to the accumulation of the adverse substance in the eggs of birds and the blood of humans. Or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a non-destructive chemical, which literally burnt a hole in the stratospheric ozone layer. Worse still is carbon dioxide, emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, which lasts and lasts – its residence time is estimated to be anywhere between 150-200 years in the atmosphere – and results in a catastrophic climate crisis.
These findings are important against the backdrop of this year’s World Environment Day with the theme #BeatPlasticPollution. Plastic is a ubiquitous and long-lasting substance — it is an all-pervading essential for almost everything we do, from piping water to packing milk or chips. But it has now become a bane to our environment. Plastic waste is the sign of the Anthropocene; you can say that humans live here due to the heaps of plastic waste generated. Even worse, massive quantities of plastic litter are now polluting the oceans, and entering the food chain through the fish that we eat. It is not good news.
This is why World Environment Day 2023 focuses on what we must do to deal with this scourge. In India, the Union ministry of environment has introduced two regulations recently for the management of plastic waste. It has notified a ban on 19 items identified as single-use plastics. For other kinds of plastic waste, including packaging material, it has brought in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules — where (at least in theory), companies are required to take back the plastic waste they generate, based on predetermined targets, and then either pre-process it or dispose of it safely.
The EPR regime is weakened by a total lack of transparency and enforcement. For instance, there is no information on the quantity of plastic material or waste a company generates. Not only is it based on self-declaration, but also there is nothing available in the public domain to assess the accuracy of the information or to know what is happening in terms of compliance. Worse, under EPR, companies are required to recycle or reprocess the material they collect only by 2024. The question, then, is what is happening to the plastic waste that is being collected right now — is it being stored or dumped? Moreover, single-use items are still available. There is huge confusion on the thickness of the carry bag — measured in microns — that is allowed under the rules.
There is some good news as well. While the regulations are still inadequate, city governments are going beyond them to find solutions for this non-biodegradable waste that is choking waterways and creating new mountains of garbage. Many states and Union territories (25 at last count) have banned the use of all kinds of plastic carry bags, (not based on the 120-micron rule for thickness). Many cities are seriously beginning to practise household-level segregation, which then means that the dry waste (including plastic) can be reprocessed. They are either building material recovery facilities (MRFs), where the plastic for recycling is sorted and separated, or working directly with the informal sector to take out this fraction of waste. Some city administrations are even sending non-recyclable plastic waste for incineration to cement plants or for use in road construction.
But there are huge challenges which we must address in the coming years. First, we must get out of this quagmire of single-use definitions. The fact is most plastic usage, particularly for packaging, is single-use. We pack, use and throw. It is, therefore, hard to understand why we would restrict relatively minor items of use, and then, worse, deploy our grossly inadequate regulatory agencies to enforce the ban. Instead, the focus of the restrictions should be based on the recyclability of plastic waste. This is where the real politics kicks in.
Firstly, it is well understood that what is difficult to collect cannot be sent for recycling. It is also known that certain plastic products, including those that are multilayered, are difficult to recycle. This is why the 2016 Plastic Management Rules stipulated that there would be a phase-out of multilayered plastic, including those used for packing of gutka or chips, by 2018. But the rules were later amended to say that this would only be done if the multilayered plastic was “non-recyclable”. This was done knowing fully well that multilayered plastic is what is found in litter and landfills because this waste has no value, and this is because it is difficult to collect and even more difficult to reprocess.
Secondly, we need to focus on the real waste warriors of our world. We must understand that if we are doing any plastic waste management, it is because of the millions of people working in the informal sector who manage to make value out of our refuse. It is time we understood this so that we become responsible for our own waste; not use what is banned today and ask for more to be banned tomorrow because we must and can live without them.
Sunita Narain is the director general of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The views expressed are personal.