by Ramanan Krishnamoorti, Chief Energy Officer, University of Houston
On a recent visit to India I made two striking observations: First, in the smaller cities and on national highways, plastic bags were everywhere. Plastic pollution was rampant. Second, even as the Indian government’s pro-growth policy calls for the increased use of plastics – plastics are, in effect, a proxy for economic growth – the country’s plastics recycling industry is booming, spread across an informal amalgam of street pickers, small start-ups and non-governmental entities focused on the secondary use economy.
India isn’t alone in its efforts to deal with plastic waste. About 75 percent of plastic waste in the U.S. ends up in landfills, and less than 10% is successfully recycled. (Most of the rest is combusted for energy.)
Plastics are lightweight, versatile and durable but in spite of their ubiquitous presence and critical role in many of our technological advancements – from automobiles and computers to replacement heart valves – they are now seen as a challenge to animals, marine life and future generations of humans.
Recent reports of plastics and microplastics pollution in every remote corner of the oceans has raised public awareness of the challenges posed by our increased use of synthetic plastics. In some cases this has raised the call for more biodegradable plastics to replace synthetic plastics. However, a UN report in 2016 indicated that biodegradable plastics are not the panacea for the marine challenge of plastic litter in the ocean.
Even so, biodegradable plastics and those that are easier to recycle or repurpose will be important for reducing other waste streams, and science has responded.
A number of researchers are working on the problem. From the other end, a growing number of cities in the U.S. and Europe have banned single-use plastic bags. India, too, is struggling to deal with these ubiquitous carry-alls.
Some cities and regions of India have banned these ultra-thin bags – which are made of polyethylene, a non-biodegradable petrochemical product – and metropolitan areas and both some state and the national governments are focused on the difficult task of enforcing the bans.
India’s informal plastics recycling economy has instead focused on the more lucrative water and shampoo bottles, which are easier to gather and process and are far more lucrative than the lightweight bags. But the country also has spawned some of the most creative thinking about how to deal with this thorny issue.
And all of those efforts come amidst a government push to actually increase the amount of plastics in Indian society.
The average Indian uses approximately 25 pounds of plastics each year, about a tenth of what an average American uses. The Indian government has set the goal of doubling the per capita plastics consumption by 2022, presumably a surrogate measure for economic advancement and increased advanced manufacturing.
More plastic represents more wealth.
Figure 1 Per capita plastic products consumption (Kg/person) http://ficci.in/spdocument/20872/report-Plastic-infrastructure-2017-ficci.pdf
Recent estimates predict a 10% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in plastics consumption over the next five years, reflecting a similar growth in the preceding five years. On the other, the local governments are responding to public outrage, including with the banning of plastic bags including ultra-thin bags of polyethylene and Styrofoam-based products. The national government is also considering banning polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a plastic used in infrastructure building that, when improperly disposed of, leads to the release of toxic compounds into the environment.
That’s just one example of why India has long been called the land of contradictions. The country’s love-hate relationship with all things plastics is no different.
The street picker-based recycling economy, along with the various bans, have ensured India’s continued efforts in battling plastic pollution. At the other end of the spectrum, the country is home to some of the most innovative thinking about plastics recycling. Clearly the economic and developmental goals of India, if not the world, require a fresh approach to changing the story of plastics.
That approach might be found here. Banyan Nation, a plastics recycling start-up from the Indian city of Hyderabad, stunned the world by winning the Dell People’s Choice Award for Circular Economy Entrepreneur as part of the Circulars Awards at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The five-year-old company is known for its work with Tata Motors in recycling automotive bumpers and for working with the French cosmetics company L’Oréal to recycle shampoo bottles. But its true innovation lies in its efforts to address the three key challenges in plastics recycling in countries like India – addressing the “last-mile” of the waste through a digital network; developing a strategy for cleaning and sorting the plastic waste economically to ensure creation of a secondary-use pellet that was comparable to primary plastic; and lastly partnership with large state-wide entities and multi-national corporations towards the waste-to-product recycling for e-waste, automobile parts and consumer products packaging.
Such a systems level approach is perhaps the only way we are going to address the challenge of plastics pollution and ensure their continued use to fuel life-changing innovation across the world.