Not very long ago, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had submitted a report to the Indian Supreme Court which stated – ‘We are sitting on a plastic time bomb’. The submission was impelled, following an extensive report by CPCB, according to which, India generates 5.6 million metric tons of plastic waste each year, of which only 60 per cent is recycled. In addition to that, the report also revealed that the capital city of the country, Delhi, topped the list in terms of plastic waste generation with 689.5 metric tons every day. Likewise, according to the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering and Technology, there are approximately 3500 formal recycling units in India and 4000 informal units, employing 1.6 million people directly and indirectly.
Adding to the insights, 60 per cent of plastic recycling that takes place happens in the so-called informal sector. While this informal sector has been supporting the livelihood of many families, the process of recycling is performed with very little regard for workers safety and environmental protection and without control or monitoring by the government. This is mostly because; it avoids fossil fuel usage, carbon dioxide emissions and land filling; plastic recycling is by and large a sustainable activity. Despite these advantages, some fraction of plastic waste does contain hazardous substances and requires specific treatment, while the rest needs to be destroyed.
Talking of hazardous substances, there are plastic additives that include brominated flame retardants, which is used for fireproofing and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and antimony. A human body when exposed to such substances without precautionary measures for a prolonged period has the potential to cause cancer, damage to nervous and reproductive systems, behavioral changes etc. In the developed parts of the contemporary world, hazardous plastics are usually not recycled, but they are destroyed in controlled incinerators. The way the Indian informal sector handles hazardous plastics in an unrestrained manner, could lead to environmental issues that would not only harm humans, but also other living species.
Adding to the strain, the Indian recycling industry is challenged by the lack of infrastructure and support for small recyclers. These recyclers need to perform various washing and cleaning on the mixed bag of wet and dry waste in order to recycle them. Ensued by such procedures, these recyclers end up releasing a lot of effluent, dust and debris in to the environment. While these recyclers are serving a decent cause, they often get blamed for creating pollution as these small-scale recyclers do not have the monetary support to set up effluent treatment plants or install dust filters.
Ensued by the current state of affairs, taking cues from the initiatives taken by Chinese Government, the Indian government’s Department of Science and Technology has taken up a project to see how such recycling clusters could be formed in various parts of the country where common effluent treatment plants and other facilities like laboratories can be provided.
However, apart from the initiative taken by the government, the India retailers and brand owners can play an active role in the prevention and control of plastic litter. Against the general notion prevalent about plastic industry, people need to understand that the industry is not creating waste; it is merely converting plastic granules to finished products as per the requirements of the customers. Having said that, just the way these companies are creating plastic products, they should come forward and share the responsibility of managing plastic waste and make real efforts and not plain symbolic gestures.
Nevertheless, government endeavors are what would largely impact the segment. Therefore, the government should provide adequate infrastructure, so that local municipalities and other bodies can carry out waste collection in economically viable quantities and minimise excess contamination. The job of waste collection must be the responsibility municipalities, gram panchayats and other local bodies, because it is unrealistic to expect the 10, 000 odd plastic processors to pick plastic waste from across the country. Apart from that, stringent waste management rules needs to be designed and enforced.
Furthermore, in order to be able to deal with the situation better, India must consider its large pool of capable scientists and researchers. The CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum is one of the leading constituent laboratories of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research. It undertakes research and development activities for optimum utilisation of petroleum products. Likewise, Indian recyclers could benefit immensely from such experts and their expertise should be harnessed to minimise energy consumption and reducing pollution. Moreover, the industry should collaborate with such laboratories, where it informs them about the pros and cons of a particular waste product and in return learn from them about catalyst and additives that could further optimise their processes.
This article has been authored by Sachin Sharma, CEO, GEM Enviro Management Pvt