Waste

Plastic recycling: What it means

What do we really mean by recycling? What happens to the waste we can’t recycle?

 
By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 16 July 2020
Plastic recycling: What it means. Illustration: Ritika Bohra

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is all-subsuming. The pandemic makes it difficult to think or act on all the issues that made up our world yesterday and will stay in our world of tomorrow.

One such issue is plastic — the most ubiquitous substance that takes up so much of our lives and fills up our land and oceans, polluting it and adding to our health-stress. The current health emergency has normalised the use of plastic as more and more of it gets used as protection against the virus.

This plastic protection gear — from the gloves, to the masks to the body suits — so critical in this ‘war’ against COVID-19, will also contribute to the mountains of trash in our cities – if it is not incinerated in properly controlled and managed medical waste disposal facilities. 

The politics of plastic is in the rather benign word ‘recycling’. Global industry has successfully argued that we can continue to use this highly durable substance because once we throw it, it will be recycled. Never mind that nobody knows what this means.

When China came up with its 2018 National Sword policy to stop its import of plastic waste for ‘re-processing’, the rich woke up to some harsh realities. Soon after, ships of plastic waste cargo were turned away from many other countries, like Malaysia or Indonesia.

Nobody wanted this waste. They had enough of their own to deal with. 

It is reported that prior to the 2018 ban, 95 of the European Union’s (EU’s) and 70 per cent of United States plastic waste collected for recycling was sold and shipped to China. The dependence on China meant that recycling standards had become slack – food waste was mixed with plastic and industry had excelled in creating new products, design and colours of the waste.

All this meant that waste was more contaminated; recycling difficult. So much so that even China — which can make business from nothing — found it unprofitable to reprocess it. 

India’s plastic waste problem is not as huge as the rich world’s — but it is growing. The latest annual report of the Central Pollution Control Board on plastic waste tells it all:

While rich states like Goa produce as much as 60 grams per capita per day, Delhi is catching up with 37 grams per capita per day and the national average is around 8 grams per capita per day.

In other words, as societies become more affluent, they will become more wasteful. This is the ladder of wealth we must not aspire to climb. 

However, given the huge litter of plastic we can already see in our cities, it is clear we cannot get sanguine about the fact that we will catch up — collect more; recycle more. This will not work, unless we think different and act decisively. Something that is sorely missing today. 

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made a powerful statement at the Independence Day celebrations in 2019 — calling for us to give up the habit of plastic, promising that his government would announce significant plans for reduction. But his government is doing pretty much the reverse. 

And again, the politics is about recycling. Industry has, once again, managed to convince policy makers that plastic waste is not a problem as we recycle virtually everything.

It’s a bit like tobacco — if we stop smoking, farmers will be affected; if we stop throwing plastic the recycling industry — run by small industry, working often in the informal sector, using the poorest people, who work in the most abysmal conditions — will collapse. Jobs will be lost.

Let’s discuss first, what happens to the waste that cannot be recycled? All studies (limited as they are) show that the plastic waste in drains or in landfills comprises of the least recyclable material — this is multi-layered packaging (food stuff of all kinds), sachets (gutkha, shampoo, etc) and plastic bags.

The 2016 Plastic Management Rules recognised this and said sachets would be banned and all multi-layered plastic use would be phased out in two years. In 2018, this was fatally amended so that it now said only that waste that was non-recyclable and if there was any of this at all, needed to be phased out. 

This is not to say that theoretically multilayered plastic or sachets cannot be recycled — they can be sent to cement plants for energy recovery or used in road construction. But everyone knows that it nearly impossible to first segregate; collect and then transport these empty, soiled packages. So, business continues as usual. Our garbage problem does not go away.

The second issue is what do we really mean by recycling? The fact is that recycling of plastic needs careful segregation at the household level. This puts the onus on us and the local bodies.

So, it’s time we dismembered and took apart the word recycling. I will discuss this further with you in the coming weeks. 

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