Plastic is a very valuable resource due to its low cost, versatility, durability, and high strength-to-weight ratio. It has become an integral part of the global economy and society. As a result, plastic production has almost doubled over the past two decades and is expected to triple by 2050.
To be more accurate, plastic is a double-edged sword, on one hand, it is a resource and on the other hand, the production, consumption, and disposal of this material impose significant negative impacts on society, environment, and economy. Our overindulgence and mismanagement of plastic waste have amplified the negative effect that weighs heavily on the positive sides. It is reported that of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since its invention in the 1930s, only 9 % has been recycled, 12% is incinerated, and the remaining 79% is left in the environment or landfills. The leakage of plastic wastes into the ecosystems is occurring at an unprecedented rate posing a threat to people, the planet, and the economy. A report for WWF prepared by Dalberg Adviser shows, the cost of plastic to the environment and society is at least 10 times higher than its market price paid by primary plastic producers, generating significant external costs for countries.
The minimum cost that the plastic produced in 2019 will incur over its lifetime is estimated at US$3.7 trillion, more than India’s GDP. Over 90% of the cost is not included in the market price of plastics. The lifetime cost of the plastic produced should be calculated including GHG emissions, health costs, waste management costs, mismanaged waste costs. For example, the cost of GHG emissions from across the plastic lifecycle amounts to more than US$171 billion. Furthermore, the management of plastic waste costs more than US$32 billion to collect, sort, dispose and recycle the huge quantities of plastic waste generated in 2019 alone.
Adding to the factor, Plastic takes hundreds to thousands of years to fully degrade and while degrading, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles making it hard to recover and remove plastic from the environment. Plastic will therefore remain in the environment to incur further costs. For example, it is estimated that the plastic produced in 2019 that becomes marine plastic pollution will incur a cost of US$3.1 trillion over its lifetime reducing marine ecosystems service. There are also additional costs from clean-up activities. Unless urgent action is taken, the societal lifetime cost of the plastic produced in 2040 could reach US$7.1 trillion, equivalent to approximately 85% of global spending on health in 2018 and greater than the GDP of Germany, Canada, and Australia in 2019 combined.
As awareness of the detrimental impacts of plastic has risen, so has a public concern. Plastic pollution is among the most pressing environmental issues of today. Governments, Agencies, Organisations across the world have pledged their commitment to mitigate the hazard to the best of their capacity. India is not far behind its global counterparts, Indian PM Modi has committed to phasing out Single-Use-Plastic by 2022.An ambitious goal with a very short time to achieve it. Single-use plastic is one of the main culprits to environmental littering and subsequent damage. Plastic Packaging i.e. single-use plastic accounts for 62% of all items recovered in coastal cleanup efforts.
The rapid increase in urbanization and per capita income in India has significantly led to an increase in municipal solid waste generation in the country. Electronic waste and plastic waste has contributed a large amount to the total waste stream in recent years.
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India generates approximately 9.46 million tonnes (MT) of plastic waste per year. Of this, nearly 60% is collected and recycled while the remaining 40% remains uncollected and littered in the environment.
Industry body FICCI data shows, 43 % of India’s plastics are used in packaging and are single-use plastic. India is the 3rd largest producer of single-use plastic and generates 5.58 MT of single-use plastic annually, reported by the Australia-based Minderoo Foundation in 2021. Single-use plastic has increased during Covid-19 and India generated 56,898 tonnes of Covid-19 bio-medical waste between June 2020 and June 2021.
The Government has brought two very progressive policies, the first is Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, prohibiting identified single-use plastic items by 2022 and the second is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) introduced into the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 to facilitate a reverse collection mechanism and recycling of end of life, post-consumer waste. The objective is to develop an effective and efficient system that takes care of the collection, segregation, and transportation of the material to the waste disposal facility which is approved as a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) Agency.
Given the cost of mismanaged waste, the core objective of both the policies has been insisted to fill the gap in collection and segregation and encourage recycling. “The astonishing factor is the collection and recyclability rate in India is 60% i.e. highest in the world and a large part of it possible due to constructive contribution of the informal workforce”- Mr. Debartha Banerjee, Co-founder and Director, Sampurn(e)arth. Sampurn(e)arth is a social enterprise working towards breaking the non-cyclic process of waste management.
Adding further insight into India’s waste management ecosystem Banerjee added “The policies in place really, on one hand, brought focus to the ‘invisible environment warrior’ i.e. the informal sector but set a chain reaction that has the potential to make them part of a formally integrated process given the EPR 2016 Rules has really mandated the participation of large players to be part of the ecosystem. Even though almost 75% of the municipal waste can be recycled, in India only a meager 30% is recycled. Most of the recyclable plastics in India are rather down-cycled to some other material, dumped in landfills, or incinerated. The recycling rate of Rigid plastic like PET bottles is much higher than Single-Use Plastic(SUP) or flexible plastic. It is because the recycling of rigid plastic is much more economically rewarding than SUPs. So the informal workers generally avoid the collection of SUPs. Another reason for SUP leakage in the ecosystem is due to the lack of segregation at the source of waste created as a result they can not be collected cleanly. However, in recent years funding to incentivize the economical aspect of recycling SUPs or flexible plastic by concerned authorities in many places has helped.
EPR has also added due value to recycled plastic and its utilization in the production of all kinds, it is a dynamic shift from recycled plastic used only in low-quality products. Given the law mandated every brand owner or producer inculcates a certain amount of recycled material in their products”.
“The situation has improved a lot. Managing plastic waste requires effective knowledge and chain effort from all the stakeholders included. To facilitate an integrated chain of action Sampurn(e)arth provides end-to-end decentralized waste-management solutions ranging from waste audit, designing and setting up of the waste handling system, and also providing further operation and maintenance. We apply a triple-bottom-line approach wherein our projects are Environment Friendly, Engages with the informal sector and are economically self-sustaining”.
“However, the key solution to effectively managing plastic waste is to reinforce the due focus on reduction and minimize waste generation at its source. Sampurn(e)arth have invested in developing waste solutions for a changing world. Today, this includes not just disposal and recycling, but personal counseling to help customers achieve their green goals, including zero waste”. Zero Waste or reduction of waste at the source is a more effective solution to plastic pollution.