The first synthetic plastic – Bakelite – was produced in 1907, marking the beginning of the global plastics industry. Since its large-scale production from 1950, plastics have become a ubiquitous modern-economy material, combining unrivalled functional properties with low cost. Its unabated use and increasing release into the environment has placed the ecosystems under stress and poses various threats to the health of living beings as evident by the day. Plastic pollution has grown to become one of the greatest and most complex sustainability challenges of the 21st century.
A global material balance study estimates (Figure 1) that the world has produced about 8,300 million metric tonnes of plastics between 1950 and 2015. Of this, around 80 percent is plastic waste, a meagre 9 percent of this waste has been recycled, and 12 percent of the waste has been incinerated. The rest, as much as 79 percent of the plastic manufactured in the world, ends up in landfills and the marine environment. A study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that, by 2050, the amount of plastic in seas and oceans across the world will weigh more than the fishes.
As is much of the world, India is struggling to manage its growing quantities of plastic waste. It is estimated that India generates around 3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste per year.
For comparison (Figure 2), in 2016, India’s per capita plastic waste generation at 19.88 kg per year was one-fifth of that of the United States at 105.30 kg per year. While India’s plastic waste problem may not be as huge as that of the economically rich world, it is definitely growing with increasing income of the societies and their tendency to become more wasteful. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to per capita plastic waste due to the unprecedentedrise in demand and supply for plastic-based PPEs and medical equipment as well as packaging materials for online shopping and takeaway services.
While plastic pollution is a burning issue India and the world are grappling with alike, it is worth noting that plastic is a unique material that is cheap, versatile, lightweight and resistant, and offers much functionality. It also provides environmental benefits by playing a critical role in maintaining food quality, safety and reducing food waste. It has also proven its worth in protecting the world during the COVID-19 pandemic through PPEs and medical equipment. The trade-offs between plastics and substitutes (or complete bans) are therefore complex and could create negative knock-on impacts on the environment.
At the intersection of such complexities, Circular Economy principles offer immense opportunity in improving and effectively managing the plastic waste systems while delivering social, economic and environmental benefits in a holistic manner. As per estimates, Circular Economy principles can unlock around USD 500 billion worth of economic value in India by 2030, and USD 4.5 trillion globally. Of this, proper management and recycling of uncollected plastic wastes a lone can create 1.4 million new jobs and a potential to add USD 2 billion to India’s GDP.
There are & numerous conceptualisations of the Circular Economy and diagrams to demonstrate the ways in which resources can be circulated. One example is the accompanying diagram& (Figure 3) representing circular economy strategies. This conceptual diagram is useful as a comprehensive representation of Circular Economy strategies, which are also prioritised from the most circular and high priority at the top, and the less circular and lower priority strategies at the bottom.
While there are many successful Circular Economy initiatives across the world, some of the existing and emerging circular business model initiatives for the management of plastic waste in India are:
Kabadiwalla Connect: Provides decentralised waste management solutions and technology for cities in the developing world — powered by the informal sector. Use of ICT and IoT based technology to deliver cost-effective and low-carbon waste management solutions.
Eco Eclectic Technologies: Converts industrial and other wastes (including plastics) into high-value products. Has 100+ innovations to its credit, and have R&D and Knowledge Bank as important area of work. It integrates social, economic and environmental aspects in its business model.
EcoEx: By introducing a digital ecosystem that makes the process of buying or selling these plastic credit certificates quick, secure & equitable, EcoEx is enabling the efficient and economically viable nationwide implementation of the extended producer responsibility.
Considering the pros and cons of plastic in the time of the pandemic, it can be more of a protector than only a polluter – provided it is managed properly and complemented by the Circular Economy strategies in terms of reduction, recycle and recovery, and thereby preventing leakage into the environment. From the implementation perspective, this would require an enabling ecosystem that fosters disruption and innovation. A holistic approach is needed to understanding plastic flows and supply chains, disruptive technologies, enabling public policy, circular business models, innovative financing models, and initiatives led by communities and industry. Collaborations and partnerships would be critical for accelerating the transition towards Circular Plastics Economy in India.
This blog first appeared as an editorial in Development Alternatives Newsletter June, 2021