Can the world beat plastic?

Pollution caused by plastic is a major issue in today’s world. But solutions to tackle it and dispose plastic waste safely do exist

By Samar Lahiry
Published: Wednesday 08 May 2019
Representational Image. Photo: Getty Images

Plastic pollution has become a major worry around the world. Plastic pollutes the soil, water and air, and there are no easy answers to the problems it causes. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and seep into ground water, lakes and rivers.  An article on the Yale Environment 360 website emphasises that globally, more plastic is now ending up in landfills, incinerators or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable.

Australia, for instance, has piled up 1.3 Million Tonnes (MT) of recyclable waste, which would have been shipped to China earlier. It is to be noted that China handled half of the world’s recyclable waste for over two-and-a-half decades. Ninety-five per cent of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 per cent in the United States (US) were sold and shipped to Chinese processors. China decided to stop taking in the world’s waste for recycling in January 2018.

Although many western countries have banned single-use plastics over the past 12 months, the waste mountain will continue to grow over the next 10 years. According to media report, as many as 111 MT of plastics will have to find a new place or disposed of otherwise as a result of China’s ban. Almost 70 per cent of the plastic is of the single-use type that cannot be recycled. Experts have repeatedly suggested a total ban on this plastic variant as the only way to avoid ecological damage.

Manufacture and use of single-use plastic has been banned in four Indian states including Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh. The success of the bans, so far, has been mixed. For instance, Maharashtra reported a 40 per cent drop in plastic waste in the seven months since the ban began there in March 2018.

Plastic poison

There are no easy solutions to the plastic pollution. Plastic waste breaks down into micro plastics, roughly the size of a grain of rice. The effects of micro plastic on our health could be gauged from the fact that most soda and water bottles and dinner trays are made from PolyErythrol Tetraphthalet (PET). Heavy metals like Antimony (Sb) are contaminants, which may leach from PET bottles into the water. Brominated compounds are also found in PET bottles and can cause paranoia and other psychotic symptoms.

HighDensityPolyEthylene(HDPE) used in cups and milk jugs releases a chemical that can alter  the cells of children and infants. PolyVinylChloride (PVC), also used in bottles and containers, contains phthalates and lead. Phthalates can disrupt the endocrine system. LowDensityPolyEthylene (LDPE) can also leach chemicals and polystyrine can release suspected carcinogens. BisphenolA (BPA) and bisphenolS (BPS) are used to produce a variety of plastic products and they are endocrine disruptors. They are suspected to increase the risk of cancers, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. More studies are needed to understand the long-term effects of plastic use and exposure.

Since the vast majority of plastic is non-biodegradable, recycling is a part of global efforts to reduce plastic in the waste stream. But, there are numerous technical hurdles to overcome when recycling plastic. When different types of plastics are melted together, they tend to phase-separate, like oil and water, and set in these layers. The two most widely manufactured plastics, polypropylene and polyethylene, behave this way, which limits their utility.

The quantity of post-consumer recycled plastics has increased every year since 1990. In the US, as of 2015, approximately 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste had been generated, around nine per cent of which had been recycled, 12 per cent was incinerated, and 79 per cent was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. Japan's plastic waste utilisation rate stood at 83 per cent in 2014, up from 73 per cent in 2006 according to the nation's Plastic Waste Management Institute. In 2016, only 14 per cent of plastic waste was recycled globally.                                                 

According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates in 2015, Indian cities generate about 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste per day and about 70 per cent of the plastic produced in the country ends up as waste. Nearly 40 per cent of India’s plastic waste is neither collected nor recycled. It ends up polluting water supplies (clogging drains) and soils, including agricultural land, and is consumed by stray animals.

Waste-To-Energy (WTE) plants in India burn plastic waste. The presence of chlorinated hydrocarbons like PVC results in the release of dioxins and furans when the waste is burnt at less than 850°c and pose a serious threat to our health and environment. Experts have cited the inadequacy of collection and recycling systems as being the reason behind the burgeoning plastic waste problem.


At a time when the entire world is grappling with disposal problems of huge volumes of plastic waste, road construction provides a solution to plastic waste. To increase recycling rates, in 2015, the Indian government made the use of plastic waste in the road construction industry mandatory.

In this process, plastic products made of PET, PVC, HDPE, LDPE and polypropylene are first sorted from plastic waste, cleaned, dried and shredded. Once all the plastic waste is shredded, it is heated at 165 degree Celsius. Next, the shredded pieces are added to a bitumen mix, which is also heated at 165 degree Celsius. The final mix is used for constructing roads.

India has built 100,000 kilometres of roads in at least 11 states using discarded plastic since 2015.The roads made from waste plastic are more durable against extreme weather conditions like floods and heat as compared to conventional ones, points a report by the World Economic Forum. According to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, one tonne of plastic waste is used with nine tonnes of bitumen to lay a kilometre of road. Depending on the quality of tar, 10-30 per cent of it is replaced with the waste plastic.

In terms of economics, the plastic-layered roads are cost effective. To prevent plastics from reaching landfills and entering water bodies, recycling of plastic waste to build roads in the states and national highways should be stepped up further.

Incidentally, plants making fuels such as diesel and petrol from plastic waste have been built by the Indian Institute of Petroleum. The fuel obtained from the conversion of plastic is completely environmentally friendly due to the absence of any toxic substances. Apart from producing petrol and diesel, this technology will also ensure that urban and semi-urban areas become plastic-free.

Besides, plastic waste fuel plants have been established in Pune, Thane and Goa by a few private individuals. The establishment of these set ups are beneficial towards reducing plastic waste.

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