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TACKLING PLASTIC POLLUTION: FOR-PRO FITS, NON-PRO FITS AND CITIZENS DOES MATTER !

Humanity is gradually, but surely, getting to understand the serious implications of Climate Change upon all forms of life on Earth. Possibly not to the same degree, is also the growing awareness about the severe consequences that plastic waste has upon the planet – landfills quickly accumulating nonbiodegradable materials, suffocating oceans and rivers and threatening marine life, microplastics entering the food chain of humans and other animals, and many other negatives. The scale of the problem in India is huge – the Central Pollution Control Board estimates that, in 2020-21, Indian municipal areas generated waste in excess of 1,60,000 MT per day. Of this, over 95% is collected – 52% is treated, 19% goes to landfill, and 32% is unaccounted. Given that this may be an under-estimation, and does not include the figures outside municipal areas (including rural), the numbers are indeed scary. This, obviously, includes a reasonably high content of plastic waste. Many government regulations related to this space are in place in India. The Solid Waste Management Rules 2000 provided directions to municipal bodies to manage waste – domestic, commercial, institutional, market, street sweepings, silt collected from drains, horticulture, agriculture/ d a i r y, a n d b i o – m e d i c a l . The Amendment in 2016 extended the ambit to census towns, and areas controlled by railways/airports/ports/ defence establishments, etc. 

The Amendment in 2022 prohibited the use of single-use p disposable straws/plates/cutlery. Plastic Waste Management Rules, with its last amendment in 2022, are regulations pertaining specifically to Plastic. The Extended Producer Responsibility Act focusses on producers, importers, and brand owners who produce large amounts of plastic, to be financially and physically responsible for treating or disposing of post-consumer products. In addition, many s t ate governments and municipal bodies have separate regulations related to waste management, or plastic waste in specific. While multiplicity of regulations is a problem, the bigger issue is lack of an adequate mechanism to track non-compliance, and enforce punitive action. 

This is where other stakeholders – large Corporates, SMEs, start-ups, civil society, and individual citizens, can make a huge difference. With the increasing focus upon ESG and corporate citizenship (1000 of largest listed firms now have to publish the ‘Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report’), and with heightened awareness amongst socially and environmentallyconscious customers/employees/ shareholders, corporates are now increasingly contributing to solutions, including plastic waste. HUL’s “SMART FILL” effort, enabling consumers to reuse their old plastic packaging, discontinued usage of plastic overwraps, packaging using recycle-ready materials, packaging for cleaning liquids and personal care brands using 25-80% recycled PET/ HDPE, are all steps in this direction. JSW Steel, has commenced collecting and using Plastic waste as a fuel (other than in Blast Furnaces). Besides cost reduction, the plastic waste collection process near the manufacturing facility provides livelihoods to the underprivileged, and has led to a behavior change in the community, especially on waste segregation.

Mondelez India has been supporting a waste picker managed center for annually handling 600 MT of plastic waste. SMEs in India are also contributing to the solutions by capitalising upon the mega trend supporting social and environmental-consciousness, as also the fillip provided by government initiatives such as Swacchh Bharat Mission, Smart Cities, and so on. SMEs have moved to producing a whole range of innovative and environment-friendly products. 

This inc ludes products that have traditionally used plastic – plates/ cutlery/straws/tooth brushes, replaced with rice straw/husk, bamboo, areca leaves, etc. Some other products like tote bags, work bags, backpacks, etc. are made with natural products/innovative fabrics, and some utilitarian products use recycled paper, leading to protecting trees. The benefits are manifold – products are environmentally-friendly, chemical-free, biodegradable and compostable, lightweight and uncrushable, refrigerator and microwave safe, etc. Disposal postuse is easy, and can naturally decompose within 60 days, just like other plant matter. Start-ups in the space are beginning to make a big difference. A critical factor leading to opportunities are large government initiatives – Smart Cities, Ease of Living, Startup India, Invest India, etc.

The role of Incubators and Accelerators is critical to supporting start-ups. NCR-based Aspire Labs is one such entity. While they are sector agnostic, they have announced the ‘Finiloop Plastic Lab’ program, a 14-month incubation program (partnered by Ikea Foundation, amongst others) to support plastic waste entrepreneurs make Amritsar and Udaipur plastic waste-free cities. Ranjit Singh, Founder of Aspire Labs, shares that the choice of small cities is deliberate, as smaller cities generate less plastic, and may require decentralised models to succeed. He also feels that the focus has to be to move plastic waste ‘recycling’ to ‘upcycling’, where greater value generated is by the conversion. PotHole Raja, raises soci a l awareness about road safety amongst citizens, and saves lives through better road construction, and fixing potholes. This also helps save fuel, and supports a sustainable future by use of waste materials like plastic. Some of the prominent corporates supporting their path-breaking efforts are Intel, Lenovo, Bosch, Toyota Kirloskar, and Nissan.

Sourabh Kumar, co-founder of PotHole Raja, believes that while building high-quality roads is the core objective, cost-effective innovation is critical. Substantial savings are possible by using recycling plastic, but design changes are key (their patented honeycomb design contributes to overall better strength, with an even distribution). An encouraging sign is that Impact investing in this sector is picking up. The report by Impact Investors Council indicates that the Climate Tech sector in India received a total investment of USD 1.2 billion in 2022, out of a total investment of USD 5.8 billion. Further, investment in the Waste Management & Circular Economy vertical exhibits an uptrend. ‘Netra’, ‘Hasiru Dala’, and ‘Let’s Recycle’ are examples of start-ups in the Waste Management and Plastics Recycling space, featuring in portfolios of prominent Impact funders – Aavishkaar, Asha Impact, and Social Alpha. As mentioned earlier, many business organisations have now taken upon themselves to help NGOs tackle the growing menace of waste (including plastic) management in big cities. One such NGO is Project Mumbai, supported by L&T and HDFC. Inspired by doing something significant to tackle the serious waste problem (including plastic) in Mumbai. Project Mumbai organises the annual “Mumbai Plastic Recyclothon”. This includes exhorting citizens to reduce Plastic waste, collect waste and reach it to Project Mumbai, for conversion into benches/pencil boxes/garbage bins. Waste management organization, Green Worms (supported by JSW, and cement firms ACC, Ultratech, Dalmia, and Chettinad), aims to create dignified jobs by deploying the strategy of the circular economy, to eradicate both plastic pollution and poverty. Their endeavor (they report collecting 39400 MT of plastic waste, and creating 520 dignified jobs for women) is partnered by some government departments/ municipalities, and few international alliances.

However, to succeed, all these novel initiatives by various stakeholders require the active participation of citizens. The start point is a significant behaviour change (related to waste segregation at source, avoid single use plastic, etc.). Further, individually, and as members of civil society organisations, citizens need to pressurise government agencies (especially municipal bodies, and enforcement authorities), business organisations, and others, to take immediate steps to minimise the use of plastics, and to manage plastic waste. Children in school and young adults in educational institutions can be effective change makers in society – making them fully aware, and giving them responsibility is the key. Like in many other areas in recent years, India could be the exemplar in tackling Plastic waste pollution and finding effective sustainable solutions, through the active and collaborative participation of government, forprofits, non-profits, and citizens. Let us, as individuals, and as responsible members of other stakeholder ent i t ie s , sei ze the opportunity to be a part of the solution, and to promote “REDUCE, REUSE, AND RECYCLE PLASTICS!”

 

Prabhat Pani Executive Director – Centre for Innovation in Sustainable Development, SPJIMR

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