‘Compostable’ not ‘Recyclable’ is the only way out

We all compost at the end of life. Let us learn from what is all around us and adapt our choices so that we can continue to survive and thrive

By Ved Krishna
Published: Monday 10 August 2020
‘Compostable’ not ‘Recyclable’ is the only way out. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has brought us to an altogether new way of life and for that, we need to think deeply on how do we plan to move forward.

Are we to keep practicing the same old ways or do we change our way of doing things, to improve our planet and our situation?

The situation needs to be altered. COVID-19 has further accentuated this fact. We need to be much more aware about our plastic consumption and its disposal.

Most masks are plastic, all protective gear is plastic, sanitisers and disinfectants are in plastic, food packaging is plastic and even the dead bodies are disposed in plastic! We need to question this else we will end up damaging an already fragile ecosystem even more.

I have been hearing buzzwords like ‘recyclability’, ‘extended producer responsibility’, ‘reduction’ and ‘reuse’ for a while and am clear that these are basically a method to divert attention and delay the innovations and actions needed.

It seems like consumers have been made to fall in love with the idea of ‘recyclable’ and all our ills are taken care of if we choose such a product. I am actually absolutely clear that most such products are much worse than the original, virgin material.

Recycled vs ‘Virgin’ paper

We can take paper as an example. The idea that paper is created from trees and hence we should use recycled paper has been widely spread. Images of trees being felled come into our mind as soon as we think paper.

However, the opposite is true. Eighty per cent of the paper in India is actually recycled. Most of the raw material for this is actually collected in the United States. The cheapest (and preferred) variety is ‘unsorted office waste (USW)’ or ‘old corrugated cartons (OCC)’.

This is then baled, packaged and shipped across the globe to a port in India. This raw material is then put on trucks and transported to many plants that are a fair distance from the port where various modern technologies are used to sort and use this waste.

This needs huge amount of energy. There are heavy duty ‘pulpers’ designed to ensure that the weak fibre is not damaged, de-inking units to try and remove the ink through using various chemicals and ‘dispersers’ to ensure that the remaining ink on the waste is dispersed and not visible to the naked eye.

What we get in the end is a ‘downcycled’ product. The maximum yield that one expects is under 50 per cent, which means most of the raw material transported across the world is actually waste. We end up generating another pile of rejected material including much of plastic that comes through coatings, etc.

Now, compare this to a ‘virgin’ material. Most mills encourage and grow a large number of trees through social forestry. Most of this is monoculture which is not ideal but is a lot better than just agriculture.

Farmers are encouraged to do intercropping of quick growing species so that their agricultural practices provide them with an annual income and they can get a larger sum every 5 years or so.

These trees are felled in a sequence to ensure that there is enough availability for the future. Mills usually encourage growing many times their need to ensure sustainability. These are taken into the industrial process and pulped to make paper.

The process itself is still based upon using a large amount of energy and water and needs to evolve further. The product that emerges is far superior to the one that was ‘downcycled’ but our marketing efforts have ensured that the public at large feels better once there is a tag of ‘recycled’.

On plastic

Plastics is a similar story. Waste is collected and transported across the globe to produce a poorer quality, ‘downcycled’ product, utilising significant amounts of energy and creating higher waste.

Most plastics are engineered in a way that they combine different materials (any flexible packaging used for food, confectionary, etc, where longer shelf life is needed) and just cannot be further ‘downcycled’ either. Our supermarkets are full of such packaging.

We talk and push the idea of ‘Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)’ where we wish to shift the responsibility of our consumption to the producer.

The producer should commit to collecting and ‘recycling’ the packaging so that our responsibility is exonerated. I cannot even imagine how this can be made possible. Large organisations like Proctor & Gamble Co, Nestle SA or Unilever are spread across the globe and their products have a wide distribution.

It is just not practically possible for them to have collection centres and bring in the waste for reuse. Even if that were made possible, it would mean a huge carbon footprint in collection and transportation in order to produce a ‘downcycled’ product. We just end up diverting attention and investing energy during such conversations.

It is about time we understand our responsibility and take the discussion in the correct direction, instead of being immersed in vested interests and dodging of reality.

We need to ban all non-renewable and non-biodegradable products. Full Stop.

We start to worry about employment and business loss as soon as such a step is proposed and that takes precedence, resulting in a policy dilution or back out.

I realise that such a step results in increasing the speed of innovation manifold. We are survivors.

This issue is less than a century old. People managed just fine then and will manage just fine if we understood and provided enough focus towards long term sustenance for ourselves. We get mired in the short term and self-interest. That is the real issue.

Innovations will be supercharged and will emerge from a variety of directions. There is no one solution. These are my assumptions for the immediate aftermath:

  • People would eat less processed junk and get healthier
  • Various packaging alternatives would develop and be adopted faster
  • People would be more aware and carry their own bags, containers and bottles
  • Various new services would evolve where containers would be reused, water would be available through dispensers, bulk products will be visible again and different type of delivery models will evolve
  • Industries will find a way to transform. As soon as survival is at stake there will be more innovation and most would find a way to survive and even thrive
  • New and novel materials would emerge and various waste lines would begin to be used
  • Less than 10 per cent of our plastics are recycled and that will not change by much. Where does the rest go? There are only two places apart from trash just lying around and not being collected

It either reaches the water bodies and ends up in the ocean which means that marine life is deeply affected. We have no right to induce this kind of abuse, just for our convenience.

Otherwise, it reaches landfills, where it is mixed with compostable material and we end up loosing the benefits of both materials and generate methane gas that is really harmful for the ozone layer.

The planet has its limits and boundaries. We are digging our own grave by working on harming the thin ozone layer that protects us and damaging the ocean equilibrium that sustains us.

When we choose to only have compostable substances in our packaging, we ensure that all garbage can be converted to compost and re-utilised for soil enhancement.

All we have to segregate is heavier, non-single use waste that can hopefully be collected and ‘upcyled’ instead of ‘downcycled’.

It is my prayer and hope that we will stop dodging the issue and begin to take the discussion towards only compostability and move away from the idea of recyclability.

Our planet has been evolving for over 3.8 billion years. There are over 30 million species on the planet and not one is ‘downcycled’.

We all compost at the end of life. Let us learn from what is all around us and adapt our choices so that we can continue to survive and thrive.

Ved Krishna is strategy head of YashPakka.com. Views expressed are the author’s own

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