India’s Plastic Opportunities for Sustainable Development

Updated: Feb 8

By Ruth Kattumuri and Ankita Narain

A simple Google search on “waste plastics” results in over 500 million results ranging from the volume of plastic pollution in the oceans to how to use waste plastic to make the latest trending handbag. Sifting through these pages makes one realise how ubiquitous plastic is in our lives. The awareness of pollution caused from plastics has promoted the use of alternatives including paper and cloth, however their production could often be more energy and water intensive. Our blog explores the popular three R’s campaign – Reuse, Reduce and Recycle; and discusses how a country like India could enhance sustainable development through reviving her traditional conservation behaviours without having to compromise economic growth.

Production of plastic has grown exponentially during the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014 and is expected to double over the next 20 years (1). The convenience of producing, cost savings and using plastic products has accelerated the ‘use and dispose’ culture. This has resulted in serious unanticipated challenges to our water systems and marine bodies – from turtles caught in soda can packaging to plastic bags clogging drainage systems in cities. This waste has exponentially increased due to the need for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) in the current covid-19 pandemic. In addition to a surge of new single-use plastic products like masks and gloves that get added to the waste stream, the drop in oil prices has made new plastics cheaper and recycled plastic products more expensive to manufacture (2).

In 2015, plastic packaging waste accounted for 47% of the plastic waste generated globally, half of that reportedly being from Asia. India accounts for about 5 million metric tonnes and China accounts for nearly 40 million metric tonnes (3). Despite being a comparatively smaller producer, the visible ubiquitous-ness plastic waste in dumps, landfills, side of roads and water bodies across India is indicative of poor waste management practices together with more people adopting the ‘use and dispose’ culture.

Banned! What’s next?

In 2019 Prime Minister Modi announced a policy to ban single use plastic in India and the government has set the target of eliminating all single-use plastics (SUP) in India by 2022 (4). Further several states across India have systematically banned SUPs over the past two decades. SUPs include disposable and generally non-recyclable items include single-use straws, plastic/Styrofoam cups, plates, cutlery, grocery bags and food packaging. Sikkim banned plastic bags in 1998, most other Indian states have instituted bans in past five years. However, each state has its own list of SUPs that can and cannot be manufactured and used. For example, in Tamil Nadu plastic straws are banned, but plastics bags and packaging are permitted in special economic zones and horticultural industry. In Maharashtra, all plastic bags and packaging is banned except PET bottles for which recycling programs were announced but are yet to be implemented. Thus, implementation of policies often poses challenges in the country, particularly considering its size and diversity (5).

The management of implementing and achieving the target of eliminating SUP by 2022 including the additional excess SUP waste being generated by essential PPE offering protection for key workers and public against Covid-19, is extremely challenging. Indian cultural consciousness to protect the earth is deep rooted, including among the high proportion of agrarian population and there is growing consciousness and understanding about reducing plastic waste for environmental sustainability. So, what might be the possibilities to transition plastic use in India toward a circular and sustainable economy?

Beyond Re-Use, Reduce, Recycle

India has had a long tradition of environmental conservation – from reusing old clothes and extending their life by donating them or converting them into other usable products such as bags (trending as ‘up-cycling’), repairing and extending the life of appliances and utilities instead of junking them at the slightest defect (6). However, the growing ‘use and throw’ culture in the country has been exacerbating the challenge for managing the mounting waste. This is not to say that we need to go back to the time of our ancestors, but rather build these traditions up in modern times. Adopting sustainable lifestyles and habits does not imply economic losses; rather it can lead to sustainable growth.

Re-using bags, reducing the amount of waste we create and participating in local recycling to reduce single use plastic waste could be achievable through enhancing awareness. At the same time, it requires development of processes and systems to effectively manage the after-use sector, de-coupling plastics from fossil fuel feedstocks and encouraging innovation to bridge the gaps in building a sustainable, circular plastics economy.

Encouraging Good Quality and Better Standards

Similar to the Fair Trade brand mark encouraging better labour practices, there are a number of initiatives to develop standards and regulations for good quality recycled plastics. Organisations such as Plastics for Change work with companies to help switch their supply chains to use recycled plastics from ethical and sustainable sources. Hence the development of public-private initiatives, together with engagement with the innumerable non-governmental organisations in India would enable efficient implementation.

Innovating to Remove Plastics from Ecosystems

While recycling and up-cycling are effective ways to address excess plastic waste, reducing the already existing mountain of plastic waste streams requires urgent attention and action. The initiatives such as “Bhopal Model” to use waste plastic for building roads (7); and in Ladakh, plastic bottles being used as building material8; offer exemplary good practices that could be emulated. These initiatives enable the removal of plastics out of the waste stream while supporting the development of essential infrastructure and provide livelihood opportunities.

Creating an After-Use Economy

A Hyderabad based start-up, Banyan Nation produces re-useable plastic from products such as shampoo bottles, food containers and other SUPs. To aid this effort, the company built software to ‘digitise’ the waste collection industry that integrates thousands of informal recyclers into its supply chain. In doing so, they have pioneered India's first "bumper-to-bumper" closed-loop recycling initiative with a leading automotive company, and a unique "bottle-to-bottle" recycling program with a global cosmetics brand. Banyan Nation has recycled over 500 tons of plastic, reduced over 750 tons of carbon dioxide, and diverted over 1,000 tons of plastic from landfills (9).

A New Plastics Revolution?

It is clear that the problem of SUPs has to be addressed urgently, and this is especially so in India, where the vast scale of waste could become unmanageable if policies are not implemented effectively. The Indian budget of 2 February 2021 presented an opportunity to allocate financial resources for the states and centrally, to prioritise achieving the goal of eliminating all SUPs by 2022, including cleaning up plastics from rivers.[GK1] The initiatives described here offer a few examples for achieving the goals for reducing SUPs towards building a viable circular plastics economy. Scaling up these efforts and implementing such best practice, together with enabling and supporting entrepreneurs and involving public–private partnerships, community groups and the third sector, would go a long way towards managing plastic waste and achieving the elimination of SUPs.

Works Cited:

1. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics.

2. Brock, J. The Plastic Pandemic: COVID-19 trashed the recycling dream.

3. Single-use plastics: A roadmap for sustainability. (2018).

4. Government of India. English rendering of PM’s speech at the inauguration of Swachh Bharat Diwas-2019. (2019).

5. Kaur, B. Indian states’ implementation of plastic ban a mixed bag. Down to Earth (2019).

6. Joy of upcycling: design brings new life to old rubbish - in pictures. The Guardian (2014).

7. No Longer Going to Waste:Improved Plastic Waste Management Builds Roads & Livelihoods for women in India. GEF Small Grants Programme (2019).

8. This trio is using ‘trashed’ plastic bottles to create greenhouses in Ladakh to grow crops all year. The New Indian Express

9. Banyan Nation – an Unreasonable company.

10. How Fossil Fuels Helped A Chemist Launch the Plastic Industry. All Things Considered (2016).

11. How plastic bags were supposed to help the planet. BBC News (2019).

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